A Good American by Alex George

Fiction pick by Jean-Louis

(Putnam’s Sons, 2012)

The story of immigration is a story as old as all of humanity. In his debut novel, “A Good American”, Alex George sets before us the chronicle of Freerdick and Jette Mesenheimer who come to America from Germany. Like all immigrants, their story is a little haphazard and dependent on chance and circumstance. When their original plan to go to New York is foiled, they take the next boat to New Orleans and the stage is set for the next chapter in their lives.
The narrator of the novel is the grandson of Frederick and Jette and he traces the family’s story from Germany to Missouri. The problem with any family saga is that the choice of narrator really defines the shape of the novel. By choosing a grandson, we have continuity but lose some immediacy. The other factor is that the story starts off in 1904 and ends up in close to contemporary time. This is a big time frame to cover and sometimes the pace is too quick. But what we are given is more of a swath through time than an intimate portrayal.
A through line in the novel is music and romance. The Mesenheimers are known for their love of music and for their beautiful singing voices. Music in many forms is a constant throughout the novel and evolves with the times in which the family lives.
Frederick Mesenheimer, a newcomer to America, is in love with his new found land. The novel, as the title reminds us, is a meditation on what it is to be a good American. This immigrant story is about transitions and adaptation. The saga continues from generation to generation and character to character. Alex George the author is also a new immigrant to the USA and through his novel he is pondering the experience of immigration. Quite likely, most of us are also close to an immigrant experience. Whether it is our parents or grandparents who made the trip, we are still part of the continuum of change that defines us as nomadic citizens in the world.

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