Summer of My German Soldier
Bette Greene (Young Adult Historical Fiction)
It was the most exciting thing to have ever happened to Jenkinsville, Arkansas. German POWs, maybe twenty in all, arrived by train and would be housed in a camp in the small southern town. Twelve-year-old Patty Bergen was among the many townspeople there to witness the event. Each hoping to do their patriotic part to make President Roosevelt proud during this summer of World War II. During a chance encounter in her family’s store, Patty meets young Anton Reicker, a handsome, educated young man who is one of the POWs. Although he is German and she is Jewish, they begin an unlikely friendship that will test Patty’s family bonds, as well as question her national loyalty.
Written in 1973, Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier was not only listed on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-1999, it also made the ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books for 2001. According to the ALA’s website (www.ala.org), “The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information.” To educate schools and libraries about censorship, they publish these lists which are compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). With that said, this book (recommended for ages 11 and up) is full of racial slurs, derogatory language, sexual innuendoes, and many instances of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse. It truly runs the gamut for a story written for fifth graders and up. These issues alone are enough to give a reader pause, but these aren’t the only reasons that I found myself disappointed with this book.
First, Patty’s father and mother are inexplicably cruel and violent to her. They fawn over her little sister, Sharon, while Patty endures taunts, intolerance, dismissiveness, and even physical beatings at the hands of her father. I kept hoping for some enlightening backstory as to why these two people could possibly hate their own child so much, but Greene doesn’t even provide a hint to explain their savage and inhuman behavior. Their treatment of Patty is repugnant and demoralizing, which serves as the ideal foundation for many of Patty’s choices—which are often hasty and incredibly unwise. Here is a girl so desperate for acceptance and so eager for kindness that she would say or do anything in order to achieve some modicum of happiness.
Second, Greene gives us a story that seems devoid of any moral lessons. The Bergen family’s black housekeeper, Ruth—who takes on the role of mother figure—is very religious and is often heard singing hymns while doing chores and encourages the children to pray at lunchtime. Despite this being a story about a Jewish family, we get a healthy dose of Christianity and the glory that comes with salvation. Even with this, there really isn’t a central theme tying the entire story together. We understand the courage of putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of your own and the virtues of seeing beyond religion, ethnicity, or skin color, but these platitudes fall by the wayside with an ending that is absent any sort of clarity, closure, or inspiration. The reader is left feeling just as bewildered and discouraged as Patty whose only “real” friends are the housekeeper, a POW, and the town’s sheriff.
I read Greene’s Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. (which I rated 4/5) and was so hoping to find that same feeling of hope and triumph in this book. Instead, Greene delivers a bleak look at family and life and gives us a girl so disillusioned and unsatisfied with her life, that the only thing she clings to is the day she turns eighteen. Unfortunately for Patty, that’s still six very long summers away.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
**Want more? Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket