Thursday, January 13, 2011

Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century

One of the reasons a lot of people give for not reading books on history is that they are not relevant to their lives. I have to agree with them that most history books are boring recitations of dates, wars, treaties and the important figures of those eras accompanied by dry analyses. It is difficult to imagine what life would have been like for ordinary people during those times.

John Paul Godges offers a different take on history. He writes about 20th century history from the point of view of his family’s history. Starting with his maternal grandparents’ experience immigrating from Italy through his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party, he illustrates the important events of the previous century.

Suddenly, history becomes relevant. Thanks to the Godges family, readers experience vicariously the major events of the 20th century and how they impacted the lives of ordinary people. Instead of the “immigrants came to America seeking a better life”, we are treated to stories of what life was like in Europe and what “a better life” actually meant once people arrived here. Likewise, the turbulence of the 1960’s had different effects on different people as illustrated by lives of different members of the family.

I learned a lot about the immigrant experience from this book. I hadn’t realized that some immigrants came here only temporarily to make money and then return home or that sometimes they went back and forth a few times before settling down. I was also surprised to learn how readily they helped each other with loans of money.

Ending a story such as that of the Godges family is always difficult. The author chose the celebration of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary which is a logical endpoint but I felt that he lost focus in this chapter. All the preceding chapters in the book followed the lives of the family members along side the events of the 20th century. In his final chapter, Godges chose to get very personal and talk about the dynamics of his family. It would have been more consistent and more satisfying for the reader if he had used the anniversary party as an opportunity to look ahead to the next generation and talk about the differences and similarities between their lives and the lives of those who had gone before them.

Review copy courtesy of the author

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