Review by Steve Swanson
Peter and Elizabeth Sehnert emigrated from Germany around 1950. They knew no one, had no contacts. They boarded a train, rode to the end of the line, and bought a small farm just east of the Mississippi, near Greenville, Illinois.
Unlike many of their neighbors, they were devout Catholics, so devout in fact, that a family romance with a “Lutheran” boy resulted in his converting to Catholicism.
In nearby Edwardsville, a town of 3000, considered large back then, about half the residents were German. The protestant churches worshiped in German, Catholics in Latin.
Eventually, the Sehnert family ran a hotel and bar. When brewmaster son George was hired away by an eastern brewery, the business faltered and then failed.
World War I swept away Edwardsville’s German culture. English was now spoken on the streets and in church, names were Anglicized, even ethnically common foods disappeared.
The story chronicles 20th Century Eras: prohibition, repeal, family radio, rural mail delivery, party-line telephones, local airports, the Depression, Hooversvilles, boxcar transients, 30’s movie stars. Pearl Harbor meant war fever, men enlisting, scrap drives, war bonds, and women working in armament factories. The story concludes with postwar culture, television, shopping centers.
In Sandlin’s American chronology, he includes fascinating family eccentrics, so at times the memoir reads like a novel. If you have any feisty, inscrutable, unforgettably weird relatives, if you have any connection with a small town, with immigrant relatives who had to learn English, or if you are old enough to remember neighborhood tensions between protestants and Roman Catholics, and maybe life during a world-wide war, you will easily connect with this well-written book.