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Bookmonger: Seattle writer’s trove of family letters leads to “Last of the Blacksmiths”

For five generations, the family of Seattle writer Claire Gebben has carried on a tradition of corresponding with relatives back in Germany – the family still possesses letters dating back to 1841. This epistolary treasure trove eventually prompted Gebben to learn more about her family’s German roots and, in “The Last of the Blacksmiths,” she breathes life back into the story of her great-great-grandfather, Michael Harm.

In real life, Michael was the younger son of a farmer in the Bavarian Palatinate. In the mid-19th century, that area was fraught with political turmoil and the future seemed bleak. So in 1857, when the opportunity arose for Michael to immigrate to America and serve as a blacksmithing apprentice in a relative’s wagon-making shop in Ohio, his family scraped together the money for his journey.

There are some gaps in the actual family history, so Gebben meticulously researched the era and uses choice historical details to recreate what Michael’s day to day life might have been like, from work in the fields to passing time with friends.

Enough of this novel is set in Michael’s youth that the reader will understand the pangs of both frustration and longing by the time Michael leaves for America at the age of 15. He has big dreams but little practical experience in the world beyond his village and as he makes his way across the Atlantic, through New York City, and then to Cleveland by train, he is victimized and humiliated. When he finally arrives to begin three years of indentured servitude under his uncle’s harsh eye, he is berated for his youth and small size.

And yet, Michael’s dreams persist, and even if America isn’t all he thought it would be, he builds on his skills and adjusts his ideas about what his future might look like.

Gebben enriches this story by threading the happenings of the day through the narrative – from the “Cartridge Prince’s” invasion of Michael’s hometown in the Palatinate, to the transformation of Cleveland during the Civil War into an industrial powerhouse that supplied the Union cause with equipment for railroads and ships of war, and uniforms for Northern troops.

But while using the epic as backdrop, Gebben never forgets the personal details that create believable scenarios – the tastes, smells, sounds and textures of life aboard ship, in the foundry, on the streets, and in the bedroom.

“The Last of the Blacksmiths” (Coffeetown Press – 338 pp - $16.95) spans Michael’s lifetime and, as the title suggests, ultimately ushers out the old artisanal ways with a new era of mechanization and strategic marketing.

Gebben handles character descriptions and dialogue, including German-English mash-ups, with aplomb.

But her arrangement of the early chapters is handled less adroitly – for the first 50 pages, Gebben skips back and forth in time before settling down to tell the remainder of the story in chronological fashion.

Still and all, I’m happy to recommend this tale – in microcosm, it reflects the immigrant experience that is a part of most of our family trees.

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