Reading Alex George’s novel A Great American was like climbing back into the pages of a family tree, uncovering historical secrets as I navigated through the story. George begins his narrative in the early 1900s with main characters Jette Furst and Frederick Meisenheimer, two young misfits living in Germany. As George says at the end of the first chapter, “It was Frederick’s capacity to dream that dazzled Jette the most. When she was with him, anything was possible,” establishing one of the themes of the novel: the capacity to dream the American dream was possible.
The novel continues in an operatic rhythm, as the reader discovers the dreams of not only Frederick and Jette, but subsequent children and grandchildren. Alex George’s characterizations are so realistic and endearing that I often found myself wondering if these were real characters from his family tree, so fleshed out and vibrant were they. Characters fall in and out of the course of the novel, their stories deftly woven together under the question of what a good American really is.
One of my favorite themes in the novel surrounds the power of food to nourish and transform a community. Beginning with the lack of food on the ship as Frederick and Jette come to America, food not only represents the ability to nourish and care for a family and community, but also the desire to hold onto our cultures while assimilating into a new country. As the novel progresses, the images of food change with the family’s deepening roots in the community, moving from traditional German fare to eventually a Mexican menu.
Music also plays a central role in the definition of what a good American means in the novel. From opera, to jazz, soul music, and even rock and roll, the author weaves the development of American music throughout the generations. Like food, music serves as another thread for the Meisenheimer family as they struggle to retain links to their old heritage while moving forward into the rapidly changing American landscape.
I enjoyed every page of A Good American. George’s writing was real, humorous, yet his research and knowledge of the evolution of our country through its immigrants was woven throughout. Questioning our understanding of what it means to be a good American, in the umbrella of race relations, religious views, gender expectations, food, music and the family structure allows Alex George to give the reader a deep look at the multifaceted history of our country.
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“This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.”