The Last of the Blacksmiths is a historical novel, inspired by a story of one of the author’s ancestors. It transports you to 19th century Germany and America, as you follow Michael Harm, a farmer’s son who is cursed, or blessed, with wanderlust, and longs for more than a life of plowing and planting fields near his home village of Freinsheim, Germany.
Michael is a protagonist with whom readers will empathize. As a child he stands in the mouth of a narrow Freinsheim alleyway, hoping for the day his shoulders will touch the sidewalls and signal that at last he has become a man, and daydreams about the adventures of Chingachgook and the Mohicans. At the same time, however, he is deeply conscious of familial obligations and, as a teen and young adult, fears bringing dishonour to his family’s name. It is this respect for his family that keeps Michael in a harsh apprenticeship in Cleveland, enduring a situation many others would have abandoned early on.
The story moves from Freinsheim, during a time of political upheaval, to the United States, which was then in the midst of its own civic and political unrest. To effectively portray life in Germany and America in the mid-1800s, a writer needs to touch on politics, religion, societal and family matters — that alone makes the research a daunting task.
In addition, to write The Last of the Blacksmiths, Claire Gebben needed to give readers insights into the daily lives of farmers and winemakers, blacksmiths and carriage makers. Ms. Gebben threw herself into the research, joining a grape harvest in Germany, and learning the art of blacksmithing. Many of us would happily join a grape harvest, especially if sampling the end product were included in the research. But how many of us would spend four days (or even one) working in the heat and noise of a blacksmith shop, pounding hot iron into recognizable shapes?
The amount of research needed for The Last of the Blacksmiths is overwhelming. In the hands of a less skillful writer, Michael Harm’s story would have bogged down in historical detail. But, as Ms. Gebben says in her Author’s Note: “I am a writer of historical fiction, so for the sake of story, there comes a point where the facts must end and the imagination takes flight.”
She has imagined the story very well, weaving her research into the novel subtly and naturally, and avoiding the info dumps that so often appear in novels, historical or otherwise.
One of the many things Ms. Gebben does so well in the novel is ensure that the voice fits the era in which the book is set. Michael’s voice is not that of a 21st century American, but that of a 19th century immigrant — uncertain, observant, optimistic, fearful, determined, hopeful, earnest and torn between opportunity and duty.
The Last of the Blacksmiths is 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.