For Patty Bergen, the only Jewish girl her age in her small Arkansas hometown, it is a summer just like any other until a train arrives bearing Nazi prisoners of war who are bound for the new POW camp just outside of town. She chances to meet one of them when a group of prisoners is brought into her father's store. Since Anton Reiker can speak perfect English he is selected to act as an interpreter for the others in his group. Patty gets the chance to wait on him and discovers a polite, kind young man with whom she can relate. When Anton escapes from the prison camp, Patty spots him preparing to hop a train behind her house and persuades him to hide out in her secret room above the family's garage. She risks everything to help a young man who is considered the enemy, but in return she receives the gift of a friendship that will change her life forever in ways she never could have imagined.
Summer of My German Soldier is a poignant coming-of-age story about a young Jewish girl from a small town in Arkansas who helps an escaped German POW, an act which changes her life forever. This short young adult novel is packed with philosophical lessons on human nature that make it very difficult for me to describe, but suffice it to say that it is an amazing little book. I almost wish it had been longer, to give me more time to ponder its depths, but at the same time, it was nearly perfect at its current length. The ending, while not happy, did contain a grain of hope for Patty's future, and I couldn't help but think that it was ripe for a sequel. Imagine my delight, when I discovered that there is indeed one, Morning Is a Long Time Coming, which continues Patty's search for love and meaning in her life. In fact, I probably wouldn't have been able to give this book quite as high of a rating if it had simply ended where it did. That would have been almost cruel.
Patty is very sympathetic as the heroine and first-person narrator of the story. Simply being part of the only Jewish family in town makes her unusual, but she is also a girl with an adventurous spirit and a wild imagination for making up stories. Sometimes I didn't like the way she lied or embellished the truth, but as the story progresses, it becomes quite clear that she is absolutely starving for love and attention from parents who not only criticize and ignore her, but her father is also physically abusive. Sometimes her imagination takes her to admirable places such as dreaming about what it would be like to have her father say he loves and respects her and apologize for all the terrible things he's done to her which was heartbreaking. I thoroughly enjoyed Patty's love of books and words and how she teaches herself a new word from the dictionary every day. At first I thought it rather naïve of Patty to be helping an escaped POW whom she had only met once, but I think that she simply had an open-mindedness and an intuitive sense about the character of the people around her. In this and other ways, she often seemed much older than her mere twelve years, but some occasional careless mistakes and comments (usually brought about by that insatiable need for affection) belied her callow youth. Overall, I thought Patty was very brave to risk literally everything, possibly even her own life, to help a fellow human being in need, and most of all, she was an incredibly strong girl to survive all the hardships that were placed upon her young shoulders.
The two characters who care the most about Patty and have the most influence on her life are Anton, the POW she helps, and her family's housekeeper, Ruth. Anton is a very polite, gentle young man with a very reflective, perhaps even philosophical bent. He truly seems to care about others and had planned on becoming a doctor before the war started. No details on how he ended up in the SS army are given, and I found myself wondering if he was perhaps coerced as he definitely was not a true Nazi. Anton showed his kindness and understanding of Patty when he gave her the most precious gift of all, that of self-worth. In some ways, I wish that the reader was able to get to know Anton more, but it probably would have made later events in the story all the more harder to take. The only other person who truly understands Patty is her African-American housekeeper. Ruth is such a sweet, gentle lady who is nothing but kind and good to Patty. She is a healthy role model and a beacon of light in what would otherwise be a pretty dark world for her.
More than 35 years after its initial publication, Summer of My German Soldier can still be found in the top 100 titles on the American Library Association's list of most banned/challenged books of the past decade. The book does contain a number of mature themes: profanities are used, both a handful of mild ones as well as Patty's father taking the Lord's name in vain several times, but it does fit with his character being an extremely unhappy, violent man; Patty's father brutally abuses her on more than one occasion, but it isn't rendered in a particularly graphic way; on two occasions, Patty's father makes the incorrect assumption that she had sexual contact with a man, but again it is presented in a subtle rather than overt way; there are a number of racial slurs against blacks and Asians which would have been consistent with the time period and setting; Patty briefly wonders when her body will mature and prays to get her "womanly curves"; there are a couple of characters who smoke and the family enjoys some wine with a special dinner, which includes Patty receiving one glass of her own. While I can see how these things might be of concern to some people, I didn't feel that anything was over the top or would be wholly inappropriate for teenagers. I might have some concerns about children younger than middle-school age reading it, although not so much because of the content, but more so because there are many complex elements that might be difficult for them to comprehend. However, with a parent or educator guiding them through the reading they may be OK depending on their maturity level. In general though, I think it is a wonderful book, and it would be a shame to take it out of our youth's hands.
No matter the age of the reader, there are many positive things to be gleaned from this book's pages. There are some solid lessons in tolerance, open-mindedness, and showing care and concern for others who may be in need either physically or emotionally. There was also a wonderful message about how our differences truly don't matter when it comes to love and friendship. Summer of My German Soldier has a strong historical element. In doing some research on the author, I discovered that the story is partially autobiographical as Bette Green's life in many ways mirrored Patty's. I even learned a couple of things I didn't know about POWs being housed on U.S. soil and German U-Boats actually reaching our shores during the war. It was interesting as well how the attitudes of some people were not that much different than those of today, a sure sign that while some things may change others stay the same. Summer of My German Soldier started off a little slow, but it didn't take long for me to be hooked and wondering what would happen next. Overall, I thought it was a great little story. It's not the type that will leave the reader with warm fuzzy feelings, but it is one that can impart some deep food for thought to readers of all ages. I know I'm going to be thinking about it for a while to come. It's a definite keeper for me, and I'm eagerly looking forward to reading the sequel to see if Patty finally finds all that she's been searching for.
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