Summer of My German Soldier – Bette Greene

Cover of "Summer Of My German Soldier"

Cover of Summer Of My German Soldier

We never read Summer of My German Soldier in class (honestly, what did we read?), nor have I seen the movie, so this Open Road edition from Netgalley was brand new to me. I hadn’t realized the main character and narrator of the story, Patty, was so young (12); my first assumption was that she was old enough for this to be a more common sort of love story.

It’s not what I was anticipating, but despite her youth, it is a love story, of a sort, or of several sorts. It involves Patty’s love for her sister, against all odds: it would have been less surprising to me if she had loathed Sharon for being the apple of their parents’ eyes by simply existing. (What were the first five years of Patty’s life, pre-Sharon, like, I wonder?) Patty’s love for – or desire to love – her parents, against even greater odds. The housekeeper/nanny Ruth’s genuine affection for Patty, and her staunch position on Patty’s side no matter what. Anton Reiker, the German Soldier, is part of that facet; his point of view is not only as a grateful recipient of her help but as someone who sees what the rest of her life is doing to her. His and Ruth’s interaction with Patty reminded me of Aibilene from The Help, constantly telling the browbeaten little girl “You is kind, you is smart, you is good…” – trying desperately to counteract the inevitable result of the horrible combination of intentional and unintentional abuse by the parents. Trying to provide a life raft in a sea of self-hatred.

There is, to be honest, a lot not to like about Patty, at first glance – which is what makes her a compelling character. She – a Jewish girl – decides to aid an escaped German POW purely based on the fact that he was friendly to her, was attractive, and spoke excellent English, and that she was instantly infatuated with him (without really knowing how to express that, even to herself); for all she knew, actually knew, he could have been the deepest-dyed Nazi there ever was. A sheltered and affection-starved twelve-year old isn’t exactly the judge of character I’d want to rely on in this situation. In fact, from the little bit I know about Nazi espionage techniques, Reiker is the sort of man most prized by the SS: able to speak unaccented English, plausible and friendly-seeming… My hair stood on end a bit thinking about it. She could have caused unspeakable damage with one thoughtless act.

Also, of course, her constant lies are off-putting, and a little alarming, but in the context of her pitiable desperation to do something, anything to finally reach her parents’ hearts they make sense. It seems to be an almost instinctual response to almost any situation – one which, hopefully, she can outgrow.

The introduction – exclusive to the Open Road edition, I think – talks about Bette Greene’s parents’ reaction to the book. “Couldn’t you at least have waited till we were dead?” She apparently either evaded the question or denied outright that she and Patty were one and the same; however, her parents evidently recognized enough of themselves in the narrative to be defensive and outraged. They weren’t brought to shame about their behavior, but were instead – as always – put out with their daughter that she had not had more consideration for them. I’ve encountered Eeeevil Parents in a couple of books lately, and sighed over them, wanting more depth to make them realistic … in Patty’s parents the lack of depth is partly down to the story being told by a twelve-year-old. She had no way of knowing any kind of motivation for how they treated her, no way to fathom the psychology.  She doesn’t look for excuses for them – she simply shoulders the responsibility for it (she’s not a good person) and tries to make amends. It’s horrifying.

Looking over what I’ve written I see variations on the word “desperate” popping up. And for a brief book written in a fairly light tone, centered around the suburban life of a twelve-year-old merchant’s daughter in 20th century Alabama, there is a wrenching amount of desperation running all through it. Reiker does not escape because he wants to meet up with saboteurs (we hope), but because the confinement was pressing upon him, and he needed freedom. Ruth is, on surface, what the Scots call sonsy; she is the mammy archetype of the middle-aged black servant who actually looks after the white folks’ children – but at least one of these white folks’ children is in a bad way, and she has a son of her own who is at hazard. Hers is, too, the constant worry of her race and position in her time and place. Patty sees her mother as the consummate salesperson, able to sell ice to an Eskimo, but the little scene we are shown (of a poor farmer’s wife being cozened into buying not only the dress she was looking at but an ugly hat as well) is almost heartbreaking in its sordidness: the mother’s eagerness to wring another dollar out of someone who can’t afford it but who is almost as thirsty for praise as Patty; the false praise being heaped on this stranger when Patty would, literally, do anything for a kind word.

Love and desperation. It packs a punch that surprised me, this little book.

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