Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green (YA)

Summer of My German Soldier

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.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey (Biography)

The Lost German Slave Girl

The Lost German Slave Girl 

John Bailey (Biography)

How could Sally Miller possibly imagine how much her life and future would change on a chance encounter in the spring of 1843.  That is what happened when Madame Carl Rouff left her home in Lafayette on that bright morning and travelled across New Orleans to visit her friend in Fauborg Marigny.  On her way, she noticed a woman—a slave—who bore a striking resemblance to her beloved friend, Dorothea Müller.  But no, it couldn’t be for her friend died on board a ship heading to America. No, it wasn’t Dorothea, but perhaps her lost daughter, Salomé?  Could it really be her after twenty-five years without a trace?  Was Salomé Müller, the lost daughter of Daniel and Dorothea, finally found?  And how could a woman of pure German ancestry be a slave?  One chance meeting was about to set off a series of events that would eventually lead Sally Miller all the way to the Supreme Court of Louisiana in one woman’s historic fight for freedom.

In his Author’s Note, John Bailey said that he stumbled upon Sally Miller’s remarkable story while doing research on the laws of American slavery.  The breadth of his research is thorough and extensive and he seems to have included everything he gleaned—the rights of slaves and their descendants, the founding of New Orleans, the plight of redemptioners—in his biography of Sally Miller (waste not, want not).  On the cover of The Lost German Slave Girl is a quote from The Washington Post declaring, “Reads like a legal thriller.”  Not quite.  I would say this book comes closer to an immersive (and at times exhaustive) history of slavery in Old New Orleans in the early 19th century.  The story does pick up at about 100 pages in (the book is 257 pages not counting the Endnotes) and has enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention; however, to get to this point in the story requires a healthy amount of tenacity and grit.  Lovers of history and the law will find the abundance of information interesting, but unless you are deeply passionate about either topic, you’ll find the sheer amount of facts and details presented to be a bit to slog through.

Bailey does give readers plenty to think when sharing Sally’s story of freedom, perseverance, and faith.  At this biography’s heart is a seemingly simple question: “What is it that binds one person to another?”  Love?  The law?  A sense of duty?  For Sally Miller, it was perhaps a little of each depending on her current stage of life.  Her story is remarkable, extraordinary, and indeed deserves to be shared if for no other reason than to remind us to never stop fighting for what your heart desires most.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader

The Reader

Bernhard Schlink

While on his way home from school, 15-year old Michael Berg falls ill.  Sick with hepatitis, he is found by a kind stranger who cares for him then walks him home.  His benefactor is 36-year old Hanna Schmitz and that chance encounter sets in motion a series of events that eventually leads to their unlikely and indecent love affair.  Throughout their relationship, Hanna is secretive and keeps her past private.  All Michael knows is that she grew up in a German community in Rumania, served in the army at 21, and held various jobs following the end of the war.  Hanna’s silence is off-putting yet intriguing, and the mystery surrounding her only increases with her abrupt disappearance from their town and his life.  Years later, all of Michael’s unanswered questions about Hanna’s past are revealed when he sees her in a courtroom standing trial.  Hanna’s shrouded past is a secret no longer.

The Reader is divided into three parts:  the first deals with Michael and Hanna’s meeting and growing relationship while the second and third focus on Hanna’s trial and the events following her verdict.  The latter two parts deal with weightier issues and make for a more interesting and faster-paced story.  Early on, Hanna is portrayed as a detached lover actively avoiding any kind of emotional commitment.  She has no need for our sympathy and we, the reader, duly deny her of it.   However, as Schlink sheds light on Hanna’s past and we begin to fully understand her moral makeup, our apathy slowly and willingly gives way to pity.  The author doesn’t allow our feelings to develop much further beyond this given Hanna’s tragic and unsympathetic backstory.  At this point, most authors would attempt to force a more intimate connection with one of his main characters, but Schlink seems satisfied in allowing us to remain unemotional bystanders and we do so without guilt or regret.

Bernhard Schlink gives us an unforgettable story of love, betrayal, secrets, and sacrifices.  What surprised and impressed me most about this novel is the number of thought-provoking and provocative questions he poses:  Is being right or honest worth the price of freedom?  Can you recognize atonement without granting absolution?  Is it ever too late to change?  Questions such as these not only offer us a more in-depth view into Michael’s internal thoughts and struggles, but they also force us to examine our own moral convictions.  The Reader is one of those rare books that not only entertains and educates, but also challenges the way we think and feel while encouraging us to be better versions of ourselves.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com