A Midwestern journalist shakes his family tree and discovers a crop of distinctly American characters.
Not far from St. Louis is the hamlet of Edwardsville, Ill., where “you’d swear that nothing had ever happened there more dramatic than a passing thunderstorm.” For the forbears of Sandlin (Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers, 2013, etc.), it was their town, and the old house on Second Avenue built by great-grandfather “Bosh” Sehnert, scion of mid-19th-century immigrants from Germany, was their refuge. Bosh was a bit odd; great-grandmother Agnes was stolid. She had been the best chambermaid in Bosh’s Sehnert Hotel, now long gone. Resident in their house adjacent to the railroad tracks was brother George, a talented brewmaster. There, Bosh and Agnes boarded their grandchildren through the bucolic summers for many memorable years. There, Hilda and Mary kept the house through successive years of Independence Days and Decoration Days, Christmases and Easters. Wars came and passed, and eventually, electricity, radio and indoor plumbing arrived. The quotidian, mundane stories, the births, marriages and deaths, are augmented by precisely drawn character sketches, town gossip and household yarns. At bottom all about everyday folk, the stories are related with a fine elegiac sensibility. A parking lot is where the house once stood. In a synthesis of family lore and popular culture, Sandlin expands his genealogy of a conventional family into something considerably more.
A bit of general Americana and the ghosts of one family that settled comfortably for a while in a place between Chicago and the Mississippi provide an amalgam that now and again buttresses important matters known to all of us.