In the opening pages of “The Bohemian Flats,” a shellshocked German-American named Raimund Kaufmann comes to in a London hospital in 1919. He has been unconscious for a week, and when he wakes he does so from a dream of life in Minneapolis along the river flats, a part of the city Ellis is soon to bring to wondrous life.
From that London hospital, Ellis takes readers back to the story of Raimund leaving Germany and arriving in Minneapolis. His is the classic American immigrant story, one fueled by the notion of a better life in the Promised Land, a life Raimund does find, even if it’s a somewhat more complicated version than the one he imagined — or the one we’ve come to expect from history books.
Ellis is a magician with historical details. From the walks Raimund takes through Minneapolis neighborhoods, to the sort of food he eats and the sort of beer his Bohemian neighbors brew, the authenticity of his life comes fairly bounding off the page. And it’s because of the fineness of those details that Raimund’s story comes to life.
Once Raimund is settled in Minneapolis, he is quick to find a job in the mills. Because of his intelligence and education, he begins his career with certain advantages, and he puts them to good use. He is well-liked and honest and goes through life with one eye on the future and one on the past.
Part of that past includes his family, of course, and it’s not long before one of Raimund’s brother joins him along the Bohemian Flats. Although Albert Kaufmann has a family of his own and ambitions that are different from his brother’s, it becomes clear as the novel progresses that these brothers are merely pursuing different versions of the same American dream. Albert’s life takes him to a farm in northern Wisconsin, while Raimund’s keeps him in Minneapolis until World War I erupts in Europe. Naturally, tensions in Europe create tensions in the United States, especially among the German population, and Ellis is deft at capturing those tensions and how the different notions of nationalism play into her characters’ beliefs and the decisions they make.
This is not a novel of high style. Ellis seems entirely more content to tell an honest story than she is to dazzle us with prose. But what the novel lacks in elegance, it makes up for with a memorable cast of characters and plenty of precise and pleasurable historical detail. And nowhere is that detail as alive and inspired as when she brings to life the Bohemian Flats, that area along the Mississippi River where immigrants from all over Europe settled, each with a dream so many of us still are living today.
Peter Geye is the author of the novels “The Lighthouse Road” and “Safe From the Sea.” He lives in Minneapolis.