Summer of My German Soldier is Bette Greene’s young adult novel about 12-year-old Patty Bergen and the summer that she meets and eventually shelters a German prisoner of war. The setting is the small town of Jenkinsville, Arkansas during World War II, and the story that is told is heartbreaking.
Patty is 12, and smart, thin, awkward, and Jewish. She doesn’t have many friends, and she isn’t particularly well treated by her parents, who prefer to dote upon her 5-year-old sister, Sharon. This is not a case of perceived injustice by one sibling; both Patty’s parents neglect her emotional needs, and her father beats her. Desperate to gain the attention, affection, and acceptance of those around her, Patty has a tendency to lie and exaggerate. The fact that the story is told from Patty’s perspective makes it particularly poignant; with a child’s longing for love and fairness, for happily ever after, Patty fantasizes repeatedly about saving her parents from impending disaster. She dreams of performing some heroic act which makes them realize suddenly how much they love her, and have always loved her. That realization never comes.
My mother’s face was an artist’s vision of sensitivity, intelligence, and love. And so it had to be a lie what they say about beauty being only skin deep. For if it weren’t really there why would it show?
The problem must be me. I’ve never been what she wanted, never done what she asked. Always making my own little changes and additions. Why do I do it? Why can’t I be better? More obedient? More loving? p. 22.
I guess what she really was trying to tell me was that it shouldn’t have happened to her. A beautiful woman—everyone says she’s beautiful—has an ugly baby girl. Me. A wave of shame flooded over me followed by another wave of full-grown anger. Shame and anger, anger and shame mingled together, taking on something beyond the power of both. p. 64.
Sometimes I think it’s because I’m bad that my father wants to do the right thing by beating it out of me. And at other times I think he’s beating out from my body all his own bad. My head began its confused revolutions. p. 114.
Bette Greene’s use of descriptive language in this book is wonderful, and the characterizations are perfect—not always pretty, but dead on. The saving grace in Patty’s life is the Bergen’s “nigra” cook and housekeeper, Ruth. It is no accident that this character is named for a woman in the Bible known for her loyalty, patience, industry, and loving-kindness. Here’s Ruth:
I could see Ruth on the back porch, squeezing the clothes through the wringer. She is the color of hot chocolate before the marshmallow bleeds in. Sometimes I hear my mother telling her to lose weight. “It’s not healthy to be fat.” But she isn’t exactly fat; it’s just that she has to wear large sizes. I mean, it wouldn’t be Ruth if she were like my mother. And another thing, a little extra weight keeps a person warm inside. p. 5.
“Pride, Patty Babe, you gotta have pride.”
Pride. Maybe that’s it, what Ruth has. What makes her different. Keeps her from looking down at her shoes when talking with white people. Then it is all a lie what they say about her. Ruth isn’t one bit uppity. Merely prideful. p. 11.
She didn’t just sing from her neck up like other folks I know… Her songs always seemed to come from a deeper, quieter place than that. p. 55.
I looked into her face deep below the surface of her eyes where the wisdom is stored. There are answers there all right. Good sturdy answers fashioned by Ruth to fit Ruth. Nothing in there my size. p. 76.
Despite the beautiful language and apt descriptions, this is not a particularly easy book to read. This book seethes with conflict, some of it blatant but most of it concealed beneath the surface: conflict between Patty and her parents, between Mr. Bergen and his in-laws and Mr. Bergen and his wife, between Blacks and Whites in the small Southern town, between the Jews (Patty’s family) and the Christians (everyone else); between the ‘Merkins and the (perceived and actual) enemies thereof. Bette Greene creates and documents Mr. and Mrs. Bergen’s distaste for their oldest daughter, occasional scenes of violent beatings when Patty stirs her father to anger, and many instances of Patty’s parents blatantly favoring Sharon and pushing Patty away.
Is it any wonder, then, when Patty meets Frederick Anton Reiker, a young, well-spoken, thoughtful and sensitive German soldier, that she likes him? That, having been shown kindness by this stranger, she is willing to repay that kindness?
“Yes,” he said. “Exactly right.” He was looking at me like he saw me—like he liked what he saw.
He was so nice. How could he have been one of those—those brutal, black-booted Nazis? p. 35.
But two men were all that I could think of. If I ever had to sacrifice one for the other which one would it be? The one who had fed and sheltered me, or the one whom I had fed and sheltered? p. 127.
“P.B.” he called me, and my initials took on a strength and beauty that never before was there. And now that I had of my own free will broken faith with my father and my country, I felt like a good and worthy person. p. 104.
If I was trying to interest young girls in reading this book, I would play up the similarities to the motion picture Titanic. Like Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Anton Reiker is an older, romantic figure from a different walk of life who sees Patty (Rose/ Kate Winslet) as she has longed to be seen, and like Jack with Rose, Anton’s respect and love for Patty set her free.
In a perfect world, no one would have parents like Patty’s, and no one would have to live through the neglect and injustice that made up her daily life. But the world is far from perfect, and at least she had Ruth and Anton to love her and show her how things could be. Like Trotter to Gilly in The Great Gilly Hopkins, Ruth tells Patty the hard truth of her life:
“He did love me,” I said to Ruth. “And maybe one day my mother and father will too.”
Ruth’s eyes came level with mine and I could feel her resources rushing forward like front line soldiers to battle. “I ain’t nevah ‘fore cast me no ‘spersions on other folks’ folks,” she said slowly, “but your folks ain’t nevah gonna feel nothing good regarding you. And they ain’t the number one best quality folks neither. They shore ain’t. When I goes shoppin’ and I sees the label stamped, ‘Irregular’ or ‘Seconds’, then I knows I won’t have to pay so much for it. But you’ve got yourself some irregular seconds folks, and you’ve been paying more’n top dollar for them. So jest don’t go a-wishing for what ain’t nevah gonna be.” pp. 191-192.
I watched her. It was like watching my very own life raft floating away towards the open sea. And yet somewhere in my mind’s eye I thought I could see the faintest outline of land. Then it came to me that maybe that’s the only thing life rafts are supposed to do. Taking the shipwrecked, not exactly to the land, but only in view of the land. The final mile being theirs alone to swim. p. 198.
Bette Greene, Summer of My German Soldier, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1973.