Jette and Frederick fell in love over opera in 1904 in Hanover, Germany. (He serenaded her with Puccini.) Naturally, her mother objected, but Jette, no frail Juliet, stole money and her grandfather's medal from the family safe and strong-armed Frederick into running away with her to America.
An error sends them to New Orleans instead of New York, but as Jette says, it's all “new.” In their one night in New Orleans, Frederick discovers jazz. The next day, the clarinet player he met helps them get tickets onto a Mississippi riverboat heading north. They make it as far as Beatrice, Mo., before Jette gives birth.
A Good American (Penguin Group, 400 pp.), British native Alex George's debut novel, is narrated by their grandson, James, as he chronicles the history of the Meisenheimers of Missouri. The title refers to Frederick, who flings himself wholeheartedly into his new land. After making money betting on bare-knuckle boxing, he buys the local bar and installs live music every night, ranging from ragtime piano to arias performed by mein host.
Beatrice, meanwhile, finds herself missing the home she eagerly fled. But “A Good American” never dwells long on ironies: When Frederick volunteers as a soldier in World War I, the fact that he's going to be killing his former countrymen is hardly remarked on. Instead, Frederick himself is killed.
Jette and Frederick have a musical son, Joseph, and a brilliant, chess-playing daughter, Cora, who wants a life outside of Beatrice. Joseph grows up to have four boys of his own. Thrilled, he forms a barbershop quartet and volunteers them for weddings and funerals. After the opera and the jazz, it's hard to see that as progress.
That's one of the problems with “A Good American”: The younger generation just can't compete with the outsized character of their grandparents. And the blanding down of the Meisenheimers doesn't just extend to their musical tastes.
The family opens a restaurant, with Jette offering German and Creole specialties – the latter courtesy of the clarinet-player, Lomax, who turns up in Missouri a few years later. Lomax ends up being the heart of the family before the era's racism rears its head. (Weirdly, despite giving the Meisenheimers' remarkably forward-thinking attitudes about race, George includes an episode involving a Little Person that's just distasteful.)
By the 1950s, all the spice is gone and the restaurant is a burger joint – red banquettes, paper hats, and all. Instead of Frederick's live music, there's a jukebox.
They're all-American all right, but readers may wonder if that's entirely a good thing.