The Last of the Blacksmiths, by Claire Gebben: a Nineteenth Century German Immigrant Pursues the American Dream

blacksmithsIn The Last Of The Blacksmiths (ISBN: 978-1-60381-182-8, $16.95, 352 pp; February 15, 2014), Claire Gebben brings to life the moving story of Michael Harm, a nineteenth century blacksmith from the Bavarian Rhinelands who dares to follow his dreams of freedom and prosperity and travels from Germany to Cleveland, OH, to pursue an artisan way of life.

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Like many generations before her, author Claire Gebben had kept in contact with her German side of her family via letter writing. A few years ago, she received a fantastic surprise when her family in Freinsheim, Germany discovered old letters in their attic–letters written in 1841 announcing a family member’s safe arrival in Cleveland, OH. Who wrote these letters? Claire embarked on a quest to find out more, and in the process she became fascinated with the German immigrant experience.

April Literary Pick: “The Last of the Blacksmiths was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in the wave of German immigration to the US following the failed 1848 revolution.”

—Carl Anderson, German American Heritage Foundation Newsletter

5 Stars: “An intimately detailed story in which readers viscerally feel what it was like to be alive during the late 1800s.  Rich in details, readers explore the thoughts of the German-born people living during America’s western migration, early industrial era, and its pre- through post-civil war times…. Gebben writes from the heart.”

—Sarah Roberts, San Francisco Book Review

“Many of us have an ancestor with an interesting story. Some also set about to write that story for publication, and most fail to realize that the story is not enough: a full context is what produces verisimilitude and brings the characters to life–in fact or fiction. Claire Gebben has mastered both the story and the context in this work. While acknowledging in her introductory ‘Dear Reader’ note [n.p.] that her work is based on fact, supported by letters and other documents, she states ‘it is one hundred percent historical fiction.’ She freely used her considerable skills as an author and researcher to write of the experiences of Michael Harm, her blacksmith ancestor. He is so clearly a product of his times and society that the novel has the ring of historical authenticity…. This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of historical fiction…. Kudos to Claire Gebben for making genealogy and fiction work so well together!”

—Eleanor L. Turk, Yearbook of German American Studies, Spring 2015

“The writing quality is superb, the historical and geographic detail utterly convincing, the characters well-drawn, and the dialogue persuasive … Claire Gebben has extraordinary promise. Her prose is quite brilliant; I fully lived within her world.”

—William Dietrich, Pulitzer-Prize winning author

“Claire Gebben writes with clear, concise prose. The historical material enhances her story…. Her characters are well-developed with both virtues and foibles. This is a more or less true story that has been pieced together from a transatlantic correspondence over the generations.”  Read more ….

—Historical Novel Society

“… Into [actual historical events], Gebben has deftly woven fictional details, made-up characters, and a sense of ‘living history,’ all based on her in-depth research of the time period and places in the story ….
For a fascinating glimpse into what many nineteenth-century immigrants may have faced, and into the life of a nineteenth-century blacksmith and carriage builder, you’ll want to read this book.”
—Jennifer Singleton, The Carriage Journal, March 2014

“Readers will enjoy this story of one man’s immigration to America and how he adjusted to life in the new land.”

—Clara Harsh, The Palatine Immigrant magazine

“A thoughtful and often poignant look at the struggles of immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century, and which are very likely familiar to immigrants today. Kudos to Ms. Gebben for allowing her imagination to take flight and delivering a heartfelt story that is both enlightening and entertaining.”

—Charlotte Morganti, Morganti Write Blog

Claire Gebben delivers an unforgettable narrator, an intimate glimpse of the immigrant experience, and an ultimately uplifting story.”

—Ana Maria Spagna, author of Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus

“Meticulously researched and lovingly written. Claire Gebben’s new novel is both intimate and epic, following one immigrant’s journey to America but representative of the journeys of millions.”

—Lawrence Coates, author of The Garden of the World

Michael Harm is a farmer’s son in the Bavarian Rhineland who dreams of excitement and freedom. Every day Michael toils beside his brother in the vineyards wishing he could be a blacksmith, a singer, or an adventurer.

One day the Harm family receives a letter from America offering a blacksmithing apprenticeship in a relative’s Cleveland, OH wagon-making shop to the eldest son. Michael begs to take his brother’s place, and at age fifteen, leaves his family behind for America. On a storm-tossed Atlantic crossing, he meets Charles Rauch, the son of a Cleveland wagon-maker, his future rival in carriage-making and love.

Michael arrives in an America he can barely comprehend, confronting riots in New York, anti-immigrant bigotry in Cleveland, and his uncle, a cruel blacksmith master. Michael struggles through his indenture, inspired by rags-to-riches stories such as that of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. He receives his freedom dues just as war threatens to destroy the country he now calls home.

It is not the Civil War, but Cleveland’s post-war Gilded Age, that forces Michael to face his greatest challenge—an accelerating machine age destined to wipe out his livelihood forever. Populated by characters both historical and invented, The Last of the Blacksmiths is a tale of the disruption and dispersal of an immigrant family, the twilight of the artisan crafts, and the efforts of each generation to shape its destiny. A consummate storyteller, Claire Gebben demonstrates a brilliant ability to imagine and recreate the past with historical vigor and beauty.

Claire Gebben was born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland. After earning her BA in Psychology from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, she eventually settled with her husband in Seattle. She’s worked as a newspaper columnist, newsletter editor, and ghostwriter, all the while raising a family and pursuing her first love of writing. In 2011, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing through the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island, WA. Her writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and ColumbiaKIDSe-zine. The Last Of The Blacksmiths is her first novel. Click here to find Claire online.

Keep Reading for an excerpt:

Finally, I came upon the corner building with the word Bayard and knew I was still on the right path. I remembered the same letters from the map. Canal Street would be just ahead. Down Bayard Street I heard cheering. It sounded as if a carnival was taking place. Or perhaps a parade? Eager for a first taste of the exotic customs in this great country, I went a few steps toward the noise.

But I did not find what I expected. Up ahead, in the middle of the street, two men fought with their fists, a ring of people gleefully urging them on. As I stood trying to make sense of it, I noticed the word Mott on the street corner building up ahead. How could that be? I had passed Mott a few streets back. Alarmed, I pushed through the throngs to the next street—Mulberry—and my stomach flip-flopped in dismay.

As I tried to reason it out, the mood of the mob shifted, the cheers turning to hisses and snarls. People began running for cover, calling out with hoarse shouts, diving into doorways and behind barrels. Others appeared in the windows of the buildings, shaking their fists at something farther up the street. Silhouettes of men appeared on the rooftops, sticks or clubs—or rifles—in their hands. Alarm turning to terror, I retreated the way I had come.

But I didn’t get far. Objects began to rain from the sky—rocks, furniture, buckets of slop. Near me, a brick thunked a man on his shoulder. He cried out, spun in a circle to see what had hit him, then collapsed. Afraid to go on, I pressed back against a building. Before me, a farmer and his wagon had become trapped by the crowd. His horse was growing agitated, rearing back and snorting in distress. In the back of the farmer’s wagon were two enormous hogs.

The farmer stood and shouted to clear the way, but no one paid him any mind. Then a group of young men noticed him, and one tried to climb up on the seat. The farmer pushed the ruffian off, but two others clambered up from behind, lifting the man up under his arms and dumping him over the side. The horse whinnied and bucked. Hands reached up to unfasten its harness. Horse and wagon separated, the mob heaved the wagon over on its side. As the wagon tipped, the hogs spilled to the ground with great squeals, struggled to their feet and barreled off, knocking several people down in the crowd.

Around the overturned cart, men and women were piling barrels and crates to form a makeshift barrier. The horse continued to rear and buck, its eyes white with terror. A gunshot rang out. The horse dropped to its forelegs with a groan, then lay full out on the ground.

The gunshot woke me from my stupor and I ran, arms over my head, praying to God no brick would drop from the sky to end my life. As I fled from the melee, a few ruffians jostled past me, their arms loaded with bricks and stones. I could not believe anyone would run into that riot. Did freedom drive men mad?

I reached the street with the iron rails, but the street sign said Bowery. What happened to Chatham Street? Frightened out of my wits, I dashed blindly ahead, weaving and dodging the other pedestrians, not slowing until my breath came in huffs and a stitch dug into my side.

Coming to myself, I halted at last at a wide intersection with a fountain in the center. This was a fashionable district unlike anything Franz had described, the paving stones swept clean, the couples and families dressed in fine new clothes, carrying baskets and parasols.

I realized the worst had come to pass. I was lost, and had no idea of my way back.

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