Friday, April 11, 2014

Summer of My German Soldier

Author;  Bette Greene
Published:  1973
ALA Notable Book
National Book Award Finalist
NY Times Outstanding Book of the Year
I read Summer of My German Soldier when I was a young girl, but I could not remember it.  I do remember loving the book and loving Anton, the German soldier, but I couldn't remember why.  I know why now, he loved Patty, the main character in the book.

I was reminded of the book as I read Lily's Crossing, but I couldn't tell how or even if the two stories were related, but they definitely are related.  Let me tell you about the book first and then I'll tie the two books together.

Patty lived in Arkansas during WWII.  This book is historical fiction, and it really helps the reader get a sense of the feeling toward anyone who is different.  There is prejudice against Nazis, Jews, blacks, Japanese, Chinese, and the poor.  The book starts at the train depot as everyone is waiting for POWs from Germany to arrive because there is a camp for the POWs in Jenkinsville, Arkansas.  Everyone is excited because no one has ever seen a "real Nazi" before.  "Even Chester, the only Negro, was now standing in arm-touching contact with whites."  The hatred toward Nazis is not the only hatred in this book.  I could tell right away that race relations were a problem in this town where Mr. Lee and his family are run out of town because they are Chinese.  The townspeople are very ignorant and say, "Our boys at Pearl Harbor would have got a lot of laughs at the farewell party we gave the Chink." 

The main character is Patty.  She is a very open-minded 12-year old girl.  She cannot understand why Mr. Lee is run out of town.  She says, "All I know is that if Mr. Lee had been Japanese, then it might have made more sense.  Anyway, there's probably a simple logical explanation.  It couldn't be what I think."  Patty is always trying to find the best in everyone.  Patty has a beautiful little sister named Sharon, her father owns a shop in town, and her mother is the most beautiful woman in the town and works with her husband at the store.  The people in the town consider this family peculiar because they are Jewish, but they seem to be working out in the town because of the shop and the mom's beauty.  Patty and Sharon are home for the summer and Ruth, the black housekeeper, is taking care of them. 

The reader learns that the ugliness in the community is not only in the community, but also right in Patty's home.  Her parents hate her.  They don't like that she asks questions, that she has frizzy hair, that she is always trying to help, that she doesn't seem to care about frilly clothing, and that she has friends that are poor.  Patty is so lucky to have Ruth.  Right at the beginning of the book we wonder about Patty and her relationship with her parents.  "Sometimes I hear my mother tell [Ruth] to lose weight.  'It's not healthy to be fat.' But she isn't actually 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."  These statements made me wonder if Patty's mother was cold inside.  Throughout the book Patty fantasizes about receiving love from her parents. She fantasizes that her parents will come to appreciate her and "tell me how much they love me - how much they have always loved me."  Right afterward, Patty's mom is talking to a customer and tells the customer, "you'd expect two sisters to be something alike, but Patricia doesn't care how she looks while Sharon is just like me."  Patty thinks, "Didn't Mother know I was still standing there? ... Oh, mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the homeliest of them all?"

Patty is desperate for love and affection.  When the POWs visit her father's store, Patty helps one with his purchases.  He is very sweet to Patty and so she prays to God, "Oh, God, would it be at all possible for Frederick Anton Reiker to become my friend?... but if this is something you can't arrange then could you please keep him safe...?"  It is no wonder that a few days later, when Anton escapes from the prison camp and Patty sees him fleeing that she protects him and houses him in a room over the garage that is not used.

Anton and Patty form a very close relationship in the few days he is in the garage and they love each other.  They share dreams with each other, communicate, and protect each other.  Anton sees how Patty's family treats her and witnesses the abuse from her father first hand.  He leaves the security of his hiding place to save Patty, but she begs him to not interfere for his own safety.  "Using my arm as a shield, I looked up.  I saw the hate that gnarled and snarled [father's] face like a dog gone rabid... I gave myself to the sidewalk.  Between blows I knew I could withstand anything he could give out, but once they came, I knew I couldn't."  "Anton was dazed with horror and ran back to the garage." 

Eventually, Anton realizes that he is putting Patty in danger by letting her hide him and he leaves.  He is wearing one of Patty's father's shirts so when he is finally captured and killed, the FBI puts the story together and finds Patty.  Patty has to deal with her parents, the community, the legal system, and the loss of Anton.  When she goes to reformatory school, the only person who visits her is Ruth.  She realizes that she was lucky to have Anton's and Ruth's friendship and love.  Patty also realizes that Ruth was "her life raft," but she had to save herself.  She finally knows that her parents do not love and never will.  She will have to rely on herself.

I think that this book came to mind as I read Lily's Crossing because they are both set during the same time period, but they both really have nothing to do with WWII.  Both books are about the importance of kindness, love, friendship, and family.  Lily and Patty are both in desperate need of love.  Lily finds love and friendship in Albert who is also in need of a friend.  Patty finds love and friendship in Anton, a very good person, who needs Patty to survive just as much as she needs him. 

I fell in love with this book again.  The friendships are so necessary in such an ugly time in our history.  Even though I love this book, this is not a book I will put in my class library.  The language is strong and I'm okay with my students reading strong language, but understanding the hatred behind the language is something the children might not understand.  The ages for the book are listed as 10 and up, but I think this is a book meant for middle school and older.  The description of the abuse that Patty suffers, both physically and emotionally, is very intense.  This book would be emotionally difficult for a 3rd grader to read and understand.  On the other hand, Lily's Crossing has a similar theme, and is at a level that the 3rd graders can understand.

Check this book out from the library.
Bette Greene
Independent Reading Guide

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