“Summer of My German Soldier” by Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

“Time to get going on my ambition. It’s not the only one I have, but it’s the only one I work at.”

Exciting news, fellow readers!

I have, inadvertently, just read one of the most banned books of the 2000-2009 era in school libraries! Summer of My German Soldier came in at #55, according to my Wikipedia-ing for background to use in this review. I am rather proud of this accidental discovery, and the reasons for my pride and happiness are many.

First and foremost, as evidenced by the photo of my book it is not a new book. No, I got this book in fourth grade – and I was in fourth grade before 2000. I remember it was fourth grade because it’s even marked with a reading level grade five, age eleven and up and I was not at those milestones when I got it. I don’t remember exactly why this book called to me. Possibly my mother had introduced me to Anne Frank. What I do remember is this – I loved this book. I scoured the library for the sequel (which I may look for again because I only remember it being beyond my understanding at the time). I made sure I did not lose this book when we moved. This book has never not been on my bookshelf with all the other books I love.

And that is the second reason for my reader joy – it’s been a years since I read Bette Greene’s pre-teen novel, though I did read it a couple times between fourth grade and now, and I still love it. Just enough time passed that I forgot just enough that I was able to rediscover passion for the story of Patty Bergen in the four days it took me to read this book.

“Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see what people might use for grounds to ban this book on; child abuse (physical and emotional), the use of the n-word among other racist things, a twenty-one year old man declaring love – in words alone – for a twelve year old girl, religious intolerance…

However, I do not believe in banning books. Certainly not on the grounds that they accurately portray history in a fictional setting, and that would be the story of this book. 

In case it isn’t clear, Summer of My German Soldier takes place during World War II. It is set in a small town called Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Patty Bergen is the daughter of the only Jewish family in town. They are wealthy enough to employ a housekeeper named Ruth who is African-American. There is a POW camp for German prisoners on the outskirts of town.

If we compare that to history, we find that:

  • small town Arkansas was probably not the most open-minded place in America for Jewish families to live
  • African-Americans and white people did not live in the same parts of town, especially in the South, during the 1940s
  • white families often employed housekeepers and staff who were not the same color as them
  • the n-word was a part of daily language, for better or for worse
  • there were POW camps for German prisoners of war all over the United States during World War II
  • it was not necessarily seen as against the rules or against the rule of law to use a belt on your daughter when she did not do as you wanted her to do

In essence, the truth hurts sometimes but it is still the truth. To paper over truth because of modern sensibilities is to ignore what mistakes were made, and risk the mistakes happening again.

“Maybe you’re right, but maybe, just maybe, we all have an enormous capacity for believing in anything that will provide us with a bit of comfort.”

“I’ve found this here a cold world, a mighty cold world, and a man and a woman, well, they needs a little comforting ‘for they freeze to death.”

This book should be read, not banned.

In any case, the summary of the book is more than why people might wish to ban it.

Patty Bergen’s parents are rich, on the comparative scale of Jenkinsville, and they do not particularly care what she does so long as she does what they expect her to do. Her mother’s mix of hyper-criticism of her looks and total lack of interest in her is heartbreaking. Her father is obsessed with no one ever seeing fault with him or the world he has created, so much so that he uses a belt on her for playing with a poor boy but buys her the finest steaks. Until a prisoner escapes from the POW camp, Patty’s only real friend is the family housekeeper, Ruth. It is Ruth who gives her the nuturing she craves and needs, and she substitutes Ruth for her parents with such intensity that she prays the prayers Ruth teaches her rather than the ones she learned at synagogue.

Patty hides the escaped prisoner, seeing it not as treason but as an act of kindness. It is obvious that it is a kindness she wishes someone would show her if she ever got away from her parents. She is able to see the prisoner, Anton, as a young man away from his home and his family and in need of help. And he sees her not only as a means to an end but as a kindred spirit who will look past labels and see the honest truth of anything and everything.

Summer of My German Soldier is a story of three different people, as different as possible in that time and that place, sharing a tiny spot in time during which their beliefs, their values, their hopes, and their dreams are called into question. 

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