Over The Rhine: An American Story
by Jean Romano
URLink Print & Media

"Her biggest surprise was Frank’s acceptance and encouragement. It almost seemed he was setting her free. Or, perhaps, he was setting himself free?"

Emilia is completely aware of who she is. She is not a great beauty, but she is very knowledgeable as a midwife. She knows she will have a hard time attracting a good German husband. However, she knows that it is necessary for her family to reach a higher status and is determined to marry and raise a daughter who will find more influence through marriage than she may find. She marries a smart, anti-war German who is good with machines, and they move to America. Her daughter is everything she wants her to be. Elise is a beautiful girl, and Emilia ensures she is well-schooled in all the desirable traits looked for in a young woman in the early 1900s. Emilia and her husband also have two sons who are mechanically inclined and good at science. Schooled in the best things expected of a woman of society, Elisa matures and meets Frank, who is from a profitable family of German immigrants and sees great beauty and a good model wife in Elise. The two meet and marry without much love but with practical expectations of their well-suited union. Their life is ruled by their parents, personal and professional pursuits, and their ties to Germany. However, these ties will also lead to great tension as German nationalism grows and leads to World War I.

Romano has clearly done her research in this book. Those interested in the causes of the global conflict will find plenty to ruminate upon. Germany and America's political and national feelings are well-represented, and the astute history scholar will find much to dissect in Romano's story. Her integration of world politics and the life of an immigrant family is explored throughout her fictional narrative. In some ways, the story is reminiscent of Isabel Allende's The House of Spirits or even some of the generation-spanning novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. However, the narrative fluctuates between a reporter's coverage of the First World War and a genealogist's work on family history, aspects that keep the characterizations from being as engaging as they could be otherwise.

Still, Romano writes with the clarity and intention of an author evidently proficient with the toolkit of an accomplished novelist. Her research and development of the historical setting of her work are beyond reproach, and readers interested in the lives of immigrant Germans in America leading up to the years of the war will find this novel both satisfying as a historical text and exploratory as a lens to witness the day to day lives of German immigrants in America during this time. While the narrative may not provide a protagonist for the character-driven reader to easily empathize with, those more interested in historical fiction will find this exploration of the German motives in pursuing policies that will lead to war with other nations worthy of consideration and reflection. This is a novel well designed for those interested in the possible reasons behind World War I and who find that a family narrative is an engaging way of exploring those grounds.

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