A moving story of tolerance in the Deep South during World War II, Summer of My German Soldier isn’t about civil rights or post-slavery relations.’ There is some of that, but the bigger issue is tolerance between Jew and German, as a young Jewish girl finds the person who makes her feel good about herself–and that person is a young German POW.
Summer of My German Soldier
Jenkinsville, Arkansas is probably the quietest, most out-of-the-way spot in all of America.’ That’s how it feels to Patty Bergen, an imaginative and questioning twelve-year-old.’ But all her questions doesn’t mean she gets answers.’ Like why her parents prefer her sister, Sharon, and why Ruth, their Negro housekeeper, is her only friend–and why her father beats her for the smallest mistake.’ So with all this, it’s not a surprise when Patty decides to help Anton, a young prisoner of war whom she had met in her parents’ store.’ Having escaped from the local POW camp, Anton was ready to leave on a passing train until Patty shows him a hiding place.’ Anton treats Patty with kindness and makes her feel special.’ Hiding Anton is the least she can do to repay him for this great gift.’ For a short time, Patty is able to keep Anton a secret.’ But then, as suspicions start to rise, Anton leaves . . . only for Patty’s secret to be discovered.
This novel is truly remarkable for many reasons.’ First, let’s talk about Patty.’ She’s a compelling mixture of youth and wisdom, wrapped up in one package.’ She tells tremendous whoppers, able to remain as cool as a cucumber when she lies.’ But she’s tremendously helpful, wanting to help her parents around their store and eager to share any scrap of news that she hears.’ She can’t help who she is, even when her nature brings her into conflict with her parents.’ Her mother settles for criticizing Patty’s appearance and behavior, even going against Patty’s wishes by making her get a permanent which ruins Patty’s beautiful hair.’ Yet her father is even worse: Patty is never allowed to question, never allowed to explain herself.’ Any attempt to do so just makes his beatings all the worse.
It might seem extraordinary for a Jewish girl and a German man, at the height of World War II, to find enough common ground to become friends.’ But it is a friendship built on the fact that they are both outsiders.’ Patty’s family is the only Jewish one in her small town, and while all her friends spend the summer at a Baptist training camp, she’s left alone in town.’ Anton, member of a family of German intellectuals, was exposed to ostracism when his father made jokes and spoke out against Hitler.’ Not unlike many Jews, Anton’s father chose to silence himself and stay alive.’ For Anton, though, he’s not always able to stay silent.’ The beginning of the end of his time in Jenkinsville is when he comes out of hiding, ready to defend Patty against her father’s abuse.’ Patty manages to convince him not to reveal himself.’ But Ruth sees him, and while she keeps the secret, it convinces Anton that he must leave.
By the end of the novel, things may seem bleak for Patty.’ Anton is dead, killed while being recaptured.’ And Patty, while not charged with treason, was sent to reform school for six months.’ Even though her parents seem content to abandon her, Patty sees that she has more support than she realized.’ There’s the memory of Anton’s kindness, yes, and Ruth’s love and protection.’ But there’s also people like her grandparents, and the kind reporter who thinks Patty could be a reporter, too.’ All these people are there, to help Patty overcome the treatment she has received from her parents.’ Although life may be a raging, current-filled river, you have to take the river, and life, inch by inch.’ Every inch you swim is one less inch you have to swim, and Patty is now determined to reach the other shore.