A Good American
A BOOKPAGE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
Everything he’d seen had been unimaginably different from the dry, dour streets of home, and to his surprise he was not sorry in the slightest. He was smitten by the beguiling otherness of it all.
And so began my grandfather’s rapturous love affair with America—an affair that would continue until the day he died.
This is the story of the Meisenheimer family, told by James, a third-generation American living in Beatrice, Missouri. It’s where his German grandparents—Frederick and Jette—found themselves after journeying across the turbulent Atlantic, fording the flood-swollen Mississippi, and being brought to a sudden halt by the broken water of the pregnant Jette.
A Good American tells of Jette’s dogged determination to feed a town sauerkraut and soul food; the loves and losses of her children, Joseph and Rosa; and the precocious voices of James and his brothers, sometimes raised in discord…sometimes in perfect harmony.
But above all, A Good American is about the music in Frederick’s heart, a song that began as an aria, was jazzed by ragtime, and became an anthem of love for his adopted country that the family still hears to this day.
Always, there was music.
It was music— Puccini, to be precise— that first drew my grandparents into each other’s orbit, more than a hundred years ago. It was an unusually warm afternoon in early spring, in the grandest municipal garden in Hanover, the Grosse Garten. My grandmother, Henriette Furst, was taking her usual Sunday stroll among the regimented flower beds and manicured lawns so beloved of city- dwelling Prussians. At twenty- five, she was a fi ne example of Teutonic rude health: Jette, as she was known by everyone, was six feet tall, and robustly built. She walked through the park with none of the feminine grace that was expected from ladies of her class. Rather than making her way by trippingly petite steps on the arm of an admirer, Jette clomped briskly along the graveled paths alone, too busy enjoying the day to worry about the unladylike spectacle she presented to others. Rather than squeezing her considerable frame into the bustles and corsets that constrained the grim- faced ladies she so effortlessly outflanked, Jette preferred voluminous dresses that draped her outsized form like colorful tents. She swept along in a dramatic, free flowing swirl, leaving all those rigidly contoured women hobbling in her wake.
And then, as she passed a sculpted wall of privet, a song drifted out from behind the topiary. The singer was male: his voice, as clear and as pure as a freshly struck bell, fell on Jette like a shower of jasmine. She stopped, stilled by the tune’s simple beauty. Jette could hear hope and enchantment in every syllable, even though she could not understand a word of Italian. Unable to pull herself away, alone by the privet hedge, her act of listening felt shockingly intimate. The invisible singer seemed to be whispering in her ear, performing for her alone. The voice that had halted Jette’s afternoon walk belonged to my grandfather, Frederick Meisenheimer. In fact, her intuition had been exactly right: he was singing just for her. Frederick had been waiting for Jette as she made her way around the path. When she passed in front of the hedge he was hiding behind, he crossed his fingers and began to sing.
This was no impromptu performance. Frederick had been watching Jette walk through the Grosse Garten for several consecutive Sundays, enchanted by her unusual size. He had spent his time between those delicious weekly sightings wondering how best to attract her attention. In the end he had chosen to ambush her with an aria, “Che gelida manina,” from Puccini’s opera, La Bohème. Th e opening lines translate as “Your tiny hand is frozen”—not especially appropriate, given that Jette’s hands were not, even by the most charitable standards, tiny; they were also rather clammy, due to the unseasonably warm weather. Still, Frederick knew what he was doing. When he had finished his song, he stepped out from behind the hedge and thrust a concoction of lupins, dahlias, and pansies into Jette’s (big, sweaty) hands. By then, caught squarely in the crosshairs of Puccini’s gorgeous melody, she was helpless.
Frederick did not look like the sort of man who could pull off a stunt like this. If you are picturing a suave, attractive suitor, think again. Physically, he and Jette were a good match, insofar as neither of them quite met the prevailing expected standards, and neither of them especially cared. He, too, was huge, in every sense: taller than Jette by an inch or two, he possessed a quivering gut of heroic dimensions that he made no attempt to hide. Waves of thick red hair washed across his head. Instead of the prim mustache favored by most Hanover men, he wore a magnificent ginger beard that sprouted from his cheeks in chaotic exuberance.
For the next few weeks, Frederick and Jette met each Sunday afternoon by the same privet hedge. They walked side by side through the park, past the fountains and waterfalls. Every so often Frederick would step away from Jette and break into song. He serenaded her with Mascagni, Verdi, Donizetti, and Giordano. He was a terrible ham, acting out every lyric as if his life depended on it. He changed from lovelorn Sicilian peasant to fiery French revolutionary with barely a breath in between. His histrionics earned baleful looks from other passersby, their quiet Sunday strolls disturbed by this barrelful of song, but he ignored them all. Jette soon learned to do the same. With Frederick by her side, the rest of the world retreated into bland anonymity.
Before long, the young couple began to live for their Sunday walks, the long days in between a gray sea of tedium. In each other these two oversized misfits found refuge from the choppy, unforgiving sea in which both had been unhappily drifting. Frederick was enraptured by all of Jette’s big- boned loveliness. He was simply grateful that there was so much of her for him to worship. And Jette loved him right back. She adored the lines he had first sung through the privet hedge:
Per sogni a per chimere e per castelli in aria, l’anima ho milionaria.
When it comes to dreams and fancies and castles in the air, I have the soul of a millionaire!
It was Frederick’s capacity to dream that dazzled Jette the most. When she was with him, anything was possible."This lush, epic tale of one family's journey from immigrant to Good Americans had me alternately laughing and crying, but always riveted. It's a rich, rare treat of a book, and Alex George is a first-rate talent."
-Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants and Ape House
"As epic as an opera, as intimate as a lullaby, A Good American swept me through an entire century of triumph and tragedy with the wonderful Meisenheimer family. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and achingly sad, the story of the residents of Beatrice, Missouri, and all their glorious, messy secrets and dreams is a winner from the first page. Alex George has created that rare and beautiful thing-a novel I finished and immediately wanted to start again."
-Eleanor Brown, New York Times bestselling author of The Weird Sisters
"Richly drawn, tragic, yet laced with humor-A Good American is a remarkable, multigenerational story of a German immigrant family struggling to find roots as dreams collide with honor and secrets lead to heartache."
-Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
". . . at once funny and sad and spectacularly real. A must-read."
-Speer Morgan, editor of The Missouri Review
"A Good American is a novel to be savored. It's brave, tender, and funny. As George promises in the opening line of this multigenerational story, 'Always, there was music.' "
-Rebecca Rasmussen, author of The Bird Sisters
"Alex George's A Good American is good, old-fashioned storytelling, and his characters, both recognizable and startlingly fresh each time, linger in the mind and heart like the strains of a treasured melody. By turns funny and heartbreaking, A Good American lifts the reader from the first sentence and carries her all the way to the powerful end with the swiftness and confidence of the big muddy river running through the little town of Beatrice, Missouri. It was truly a joy to read."
-Lise Saffran, author of Juno's Daughters
Eleanor Brown, New York Times—bestselling author of The Weird Sisters, interviews Alex George, about A Good American
Q. My crack investigative skills (and your charming British accent) tell me you’re not from the United States. How does an Englishman living in Missouri come to write a book titled A Good American?
So it’s true what they say about novelists and their highly developed observational skills! The title comes from a conversation that takes place early in the book, just after the grandparents of the immigrant family, Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer, arrive in America, when one of the first people they meet encourages them to be “good Americans.” I decided to tell an immigration tale soon after I moved to the United States myself. Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” It struck me that the experience of packing up my life and moving to another country, with no expectation that I would ever return home, was something worth writing about. And almost all people in America have a story similar to this one somewhere in their past.
Q. In a case of life imitating art, I understand you’re in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Are your feelings about that similar to your characters’?
Frederick and Jette react to life in America in diametrically opposite ways. Frederick adores his new country immediately, and embraces it wholeheartedly. Jette, on the other hand, is constantly longing for home. I find myself caught somewhere between the two. I love living in the United States, but I miss England every day. This is the paradox of the immigrant existence: one wants to adapt to one’s new home without forgetting where one came from. And yes, I am in the process of acquiring U.S. citizenship. In the novel, when Frederick and Jette take their oaths, Jette’s eyes are filled with tears as she does so. I hope I won’t be crying, but I’m sure that there will be a little bit of sadness, together with the excitement. I wrote that scene years ago. It’s strange that I’ll be in the same ceremony within weeks of the novel’s being published.
Q. Both of our books are concerned with finding a place to call home. Why is that important to you?
I’ve lived in the States for almost nine years now, and I’m still trying to work out where home is for me. If you subscribe to the maxim that “home is where the heart is,” then I suppose it’s easy enough: home is in Missouri, where my children are. But the actuality can often be more complicated than an old adage would have you believe. Whenever I go back to England, the past rushes up and ambushes me, and I find myself overwhelmed by a strong sense of belonging. There’s no escaping your roots.
Q. What are the challenges, and the advantages, of writing a story that follows one family over the course of an entire century?
The biggest challenge was to fit the story I wanted to tell into the framework of history that was already there. I didn’t have the freedom to decide when certain events happened. That was occasionally frustrating, but it was a challenge I relished. The fun part was to incorporate real people into the book—two presidents make an appearance, for example—and in fact, the twentieth century was so eventful that at certain points the book almost wrote itself. The only downside was the amount of research I had to do to make sure that I got all my facts right. I’m slightly allergic to research, to be honest. I prefer just to make stuff up.
Q. What is your routine when you’re writing?
My “day job,” as an attorney, is demanding, often with long hours. But when it comes to writing, I need a regular routine. I figured out a long time ago that the only way I would be able to find a consistent time to write every day was if I got up early, when there are no clients calling, no family commitments—just me and the stories in my head. So every morning I get up at five and work for two hours before the rest of the day begins. That’s why it took me five years to write this book.
Q. Music is important in the novel, and from reading your blog and following you on Twitter, I know you’re a jazz fan. If A Good American were set to music, would it be jazz? opera? boy bands?
Probably a little bit of all—okay, maybe not the boy bands. Several different types of music appear in the book. The story begins with an opera aria, and includes ragtime, bluegrass, and barbershop singing. Music, like life, is intoxicating in its variety and richness. Don’t make me choose just one kind!
Q. There are an extraordinary number of secrets in this story. Why do family members keep so many secrets from one another?
As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but not your family. Many of us have to learn techniques to help us live with those we love the most. Secrets are often perceived as pernicious things, created by bad faith or dishonesty, but sometimes—as in A Good American—the greatest secrets of all are kept at enormous personal cost. And they are kept out of a desire not to hurt others. They are an act of love.
Q. Which books or authors have had a strong influence on your writing?
There are many, many wonderful writers whose work I admire and love. It’s impossible to give anything approaching a comprehensive list, but here are a select few, in no particular order: Salman Rushdie, for the richness of his imagination and the strange glories of his language; Julian Barnes, for his faultless elegance; Lorrie Moore, for her luminous prose; John Updike, just for being John Updike, but especially for the Rabbit books; John Fowles, who first showed me (in The Magus) the magical ability the best books have to transport you to another world; Richard Powers, whose books taught me to raise my ambitions when I sit down to write; and John Irving, who always told the best stories.
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