A diagram of a family tree precedes the first chapter in “A Good Girl,” the second novel by Johnnie Bernhard, who calls the Mississippi Gulf Coast home. While the novel starts out with the protagonist driving from the Magnolia State to Texas along I-10, this gifted author’s work takes readers across states and through time to follow a tangle tree of family, faith and enlightenment.
In 2015, Gracey Reiter, 52, is following the coastal interstate, “the umbilical cord leading her home,” to visit her dying father, Henry Mueller, in Loti, Texas. It’s a nine-hour drive, but Gracey, known in her family as “a good girl,” the peacemaker, feels it’s her responsibility emotionally and physically to care for the cantankerous man.
“I’m lost,” reads the first line in the novel.
Gracey has mixed feelings about her family. Dad, “the last surviving patriarch of a chaotic gene pool,” was a mean drunk, and Mom was unfaithful. Gracey’s older brother Tom and younger sister Angela have their own recollections of a dysfunctional family past, so there’s no love lost or fond memories found among the siblings.
“Henry Mueller was the last of the Mohicans; the last surviving member of a tribe who lived hard, worked hard, and loved in vain,” Bernhard writes. “Their lives were do or die contests, living paycheck to paycheck until they dropped dead.”
After her dad’s funeral, Gracey finds a family Bible with a family tree drawn by her great-great-grandmother. As she learns more about the six generations of her Irish-German family, Gracey finds both sadness and happiness in their stories. As she explores the chaotic gene pool of the Walsh-Mueller family, she finds that people are products of their time, but that their destinies are sealed by personal actions.
Her family story begins in Ireland, travels across oceans to south Texas in 1847 and then back again in present time. As her daughter prepares to marry an Irishman and move to Ireland, Gracey must learn to accept that “family” lives on through blood ties and dreams. A trip to Ireland for the wedding festivities puts the past into a new prospective rich with tradition and kinship.
Vignettes about various family members and snippets of historical events present a multigenerational tale of women and men who did what was necessary, good or bad, to survive. Two lonely young Irish girls forced to find their way in a faraway country called America. Starvation. A man who loved his family, but can’t overthrow the hold of liquor. Theft and lying. A grandmother who takes on caring duties when a lonely mother skips town for an affair.
Bernhard’s novel tugs at the heart. She has crafted a story that survives through tough characters and grueling circumstances. Readers will finds parts of themselves in the tale of extended Walsh-Mueller family. How many of us have similar branches in the family tree? We may think we know about those who went before us, but secrets usually only darken with time while successes grow dim.
“A Good Girl” is a finalist in the 2017 Kindle Book Awards and a nominee for the 2018 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. It has been a featured novel at several book festivals, including statewide events in Mississippi and Louisiana.