The Last of the Blacksmiths

Written by Claire Gebben
Review by Audrey Braver

When 16-year-old Michael Harm leaves his home in the Palatinate in 1857 for America to take an apprenticeship under his uncle in Cleveland, he stops in New York to deliver letters from home to former neighbors – and is robbed of all his money. To continue on his journey, he has to request funds from his uncle, a bitter, domineering, penny-pinching man who seems to hate him. Nevertheless, he perseveres and becomes a journeyman, eventually becoming a carriage maker. He is skilled and careful, with an artistic eye for design and balance as well as good, solid workmanship. His main business competitor is Charles Rauch, whom Michael had met on the crossing from Europe to North America. Rauch also competes for the woman Michael loves, Elizabeth Crolly.

Michael is successful in his suit and marries Elizabeth. After a period of adjustment the couple settles into a more or less happy routine. Michael’s business prospers in the way typical of other hard-working German immigrants of the mid-19th century.

Claire Gebben writes with clear, concise prose. The historical material enhances her story, although it is told with many flashbacks that tend to slow the flow of the narrative. 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.