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“A Good American” a Beautiful Ode to Family and History

"A Good American" by Alex George (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam)

"A Good American" by Alex George is available in stores now.
"A Good American" by Alex George is available in stores now.
By Claire P. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

What does it mean to be an American, to live in a nation composed of immigrants? Family history can disappear in the face of modern assimilation, and too often, stories are lost in the rush of a new society . Novelist Alex George—himself a British immigrant to America—tackles this historical yet relevant subject matter by exploring the lives of successive generations of one family in America. Though one might have grave doubts about a British writer approaching this historical territory, George craftily weaves a tale that is quintessentially American yet surprisingly universal. “A Good American” is not just a story about immigration and a new world. It is about hope, love, and family life, far more than it is an exposé of 20th century America. While the pace of the novel drags at times—perhaps an unavoidable aspect of covering such a wide time period—George narrates all the intimacies of family life, both the mundane and the scandalous, in simple heartfelt prose that resonates deeply through its unwavering attention to the powerful connections between the characters and their own unique places in American history.

The timeless premise at first unfolds predictably: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl’s parents disapprove, and the star-crossed lovers seek an escape. Yet this is where Frederick and Jette’s love story, which their grandson James narrates, differs from the cliché. The German couple pick the land of the free, America, as their means of escaping the rigid parental and societal boundaries of the early 1900s. While stereotypical images of Ellis Island and New York City abound in typical immigrant tales, George surprises the reader by veering away from traditional historical conventions to take the couple on a path less travelled. The young lovers take a ship to New Orleans, but unexpected events lead them away from the bustling city center to the small town of Beatrice, Mo. They settle there, and in a story spanning four generations, these outsiders slowly eke out a life in the Midwest. Their roots find new soil in their small town, and they soon find themselves deeply intertwined with the utterly foreign world surrounding them. “As the years wash over us and new generations march into the future, family histories are subsumed into this greater narrative,” James reflects. “We become, simply, Americans.” With George’s capable prose, this family’s personal story serves as a representation of American history; it displays their own joy and sorrow and intersects cultural milestones, including World War I, the Civil Rights Movement, and eventually an encounter with Oprah Winfrey.

Frederick devotes his life to following the advice of a kind Polish immigrant: “Go and be a good American.” He is dazzled by America, a land which, in his opinion, stands in contrast to the outdated world he left. “He loved the smell of promise that hung in the air,” George writes. “Europe, he could see now, was slowly suffocating under the weight of its own history.” This unique contrast George presents—a fresh America versus a decaying Europe—creatively emphasizes the difference between Frederick and Jette’s two worlds and the irresistible appeal their adopted homeland holds.

George’s creation of Frederick as a character is an indispensable element of the narrative, for more than any other character, Frederick embodies the message of the “American Dream”—that a person with nothing can become something through hard work and entrepreneurship. He tirelessly and patiently works his way up from being a manager at the local tavern to transforming it into a lively haven of music and entertainment, one that he eventually owns.

Yet, George’s craft lies in the fact that he neithers paints the American dream as a bed of roses nor billboards it with a cheesy “happily ever after.” Jette is forced to carve out a living as a single mother after Frederick’s death in World War I; she takes over the tavern and eventually converts it to a restaurant. As she protests against war, much to the rest of the town’s chagrin, she, too, encapsulates an American dream: to live in a country with freedom. James recalls, “My grandmother—that reluctant American—was shining a small light on our country’s freedoms.” George does not spare us the grit and vulnerability behind the dream and creates an intimacy that invites the reader to empathize with the family’s happiness and pain. This connection is true of the rest of the generations and their various joys of family, birth, and friendships that are interlaced with the heartache of loss, betrayal, and crushed hopes.

Despite this in-depth exploration of the American way of life, the novel touches on ideas and values that transcend this country alone. Music, for example, becomes more than it seems under George’s lyrical description of its ability to bring people together. From the progression of a Puccini opera, barbershop singing by James and his three brothers, or even “some young punk called Elvis Presley,” George expansively charts American pop culture. Yet music holds a deeper meaning in this novel. “Always, there was music,” George writes, as he places it in unconventionally touching scenes. It is the sigh of a lovers’ whisper as Frederick and Jette’s son attempts to serenade his girlfriend. It is the healing salve for racial divisions as a white audience applauds an African-American after a jazz concert. It is a form of solace in times of hopelessness as Frederick sings alongside Harry Truman at the piano during the war.

“My grandmother’s life had been one long opera. There had been dramas, heroes, villains, improbable plot twists, all that,” James remarks. “But most of all there had been love, great big waves of it, crashing ceaselessly against the rocks of life, bearing us all back to grace.” The novel itself unfolds with the grace and patience of an opera: there is no defined story arc, nor obvious villain or hero, but rather a series of dramatic events, people both benevolent and selfish, and unavoidable obstacles. As a representation of the country, this story of one family of Americans is “just a single line in this vast narrative of hope.”

A Good American” is a sweeping and affectionate story of family and the struggle of belonging, yet it is merely one of the many tales of immigrant families whose collective stories have formed the nation that exists today. From the novel’s ambitious purpose—to chronicle the entire lives and times of one far-reaching family—emerges a timeless, resilient story of America.

—Staff writer Claire P. Tan can be reached at clairetan@college.harvard.edu.

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