Bette Greene Essay - Critical Essays

Greene, Bette


Bette Greene 1934–

American novelist, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

Greene's upbringing in a small Arkansas town provides the background for her three novels for young adults. The isolation which Greene experienced as a member of one of the few Jewish families in that town is strongly conveyed in her first novel, Summer of My German Soldier (1973), and in its sequel, Morning Is a Long Time Coming (1978). The first book takes place during World War II and concerns Patty Bergen, a Jewish youngster who befriends a German prisoner of war. The sequel follows Patty on a quest to Germany in search of the soldier's family. Some critics consider Greene's characters oversimplified, but it is generally agreed that in both books Greene effectively portrays Patty's growing awareness of the town's anti-Semitism.

Another concern in these works is Patty's need for independence from her repressive parents. This theme is further developed in Greene's novel Them That Glitter and Them That Don't (1981). Like Patty, the teenage protagonist of this work realizes that in order to live by her own standards she must leave home. Critics praise the novel for its realistic depiction of the tensions between adolescents and their families.

Greene has also written two novels for children: Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe (1978), and Get On Out of Here, Philip Hall (1981).

(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Something about the Author, Vol. 8.)

Peter Sourian

["The Summer of My German Soldier"] is an exceptionally fine novel about a young girl whose mediocre parents don't like her, precisely because she is an inconveniently exceptional human being. 12-year-old Patty Bergen begins to learn to her genuine surprise that she is a lovable person, "a person of value," from a German P.O.W. escapee in Arkansas during World War II.

The prisoner, son of a professor at the University of Göettingen, is an anti-Nazi, while Patty's Jewish father is very much a Nazi, really, and part of Patty's trouble is that she keeps on being able to tell who is the real Nazi in spite of herself. Life would be so much easier if she could stop up her ears, dim her eyes and accept convenient, stereotype versions of reality without question.

But she is exceptional and, because she is, she gets it with both barrels. The townspeople of Jenkinsville (with certain notable exceptions—a decent sheriff, a black maid), mixing up their stereotypes in a confused effort to deal with a rather unique situation, end up calling her a "Jew Nazi-lover," and she ends up in the Arkansas Reformatory for Girls because she fed and hid her P.O.W. without telling anyone.

In some ways Bette Greene's material is not promising. Her characters could easily have come out of an ordinary movie melodrama. Along with the loving black maid, there's a nasty minister's wife, a hard-boiled girl reporter, a bigoted business man, a town gossip, a spoiled-brat little sister and a chicken-soup grandma. The incidents, the kind of suspense and the tears evoked, all skirt cliché as well; and the author's moral values might too; yet the writing is fresh….

The reason for the book's freshness … is its fineness, in the literal sense. The stuff of it is fine, like the texture of Patty herself. The detail is too meaningfully specific, too highly selective to be trite. Armed with earned moral insight, Mrs. Greene sneaks past our conditioned reflexes satisfyingly often.

Peter Sourian, in a review of "The Summer of My German Soldier," in The New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1973, p. 29.

Audrey Laski

[Summer of My German Soldier seems to me likely] to disturb a reader as young as its 12-year-old heroine, because of the domestic violence and bitterness it records. And though sex does not happen in it, the heroine's vicious father is convinced that it must since his daughter has done the unthinkable for a Jewish girl and helped a German soldier to escape.

Audrey Laski, "Partridge in a Pear Tree," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3261, December 9, 1977, p. 21.∗


Some of the finest books about World War II devastate … simplistic conceptions and emphasize that no life may be held cheaply and that there must be regard for the enemy. These books portray acts of compassion that do not recognize enemy lines and that unite human beings despite the inhumanity of war.

One book, exceptional for its portrayal of this theme as well as for its sensitively developed characterizations, is Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier…. To some, the story of a Jewish girl harboring a Nazi casts aspersions on the loyalty of all Jews and uncovers barely concealed feelings of anti-Semitism. For others, however, the story of an act of compassion between a Jewish girl and a German boy becomes symbolic of the love that is possible even amidst the callous atrocities of war. (pp. 310-11)

Myra Pollack Sadker and David Miller Sadker, "War and Peace," in their Now Upon a Time: A Contemporary View of Children's Literature, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977, pp. 286-317.∗

Jack Forman

[Morning Is a Long Time Coming, an] autobiographical novel set four years after the author's The Summer of My German Soldier …, opens in the same small Arkansas town. Still alienated from her father, mother, and grandparents, Patty Bergen graduates from high school, then sets out for Europe instead of going to college. In France, Patty has her first love affair with a young teacher, Roger, but feels torn between him and her need to find the parents of the German POW she once unsuccessfully hid (recorded in Greene's first novel). Wracked by a bleeding ulcer brought on by the tensions with her family and her lover, she finally leaves Roger to go to Göttingen, Germany in search of the POW's family…. Having come to terms with her anxieties, she returns to France for a rapproachment with Roger. Green's portrayal of a Southern Jewish family in the 1940s is strong and honest, but the depiction of Patty's relationship with Roger is strangely forced and detached. Despite this central flaw, however, the novel will attract teens because of its sensitive treatment of the loosening of familial bonds.

Jack Forman, in a review of "Morning Is a Long Time Coming," in School Library Journal, Vol. 24, No. 8, April, 1978, p. 93.

Peter Sourian

["Morning Is a Long Time Coming"] is the sequel to "Summer of My German Soldier."… In that exceptionally fine novel, Bette Greene delineated the way in which an exceptional young girl could end up being called a "Jew Nazi-lover" precisely on account of the finest aspects of her nature.

In "Morning Is a Long Time Coming," thematic concerns involving fineness or individuality in contention with coarseness and conformity are further considered. Patty, now 18, graduates from high school with an obsession to travel to Goettingen to visit her dead P.O.W.'s mother….

Bette Greene excels at depicting the process by which Patty arrives at each moral insight along the way of her literal and figurative journey, first to Paris and then to Germany.

It is not necessary to have read the earlier novel to read this one. In fact, some of Patty's current realizations seem to me repetitious of the insights she had earned earlier; along with convincing scenes of growth and development in Patty's continuing story, there are occasional traces of petulance and a nagging sense of superiority in Patty that made me dangerously sympathize with her awful mother a few times.

There is in Patty a kind of self-contradictory trait that often accompanies the fine strengths of exceptional individuals, and more might have been made of that sort of complexity.

Also, while Patty is annoyingly quick to doubt herself when she should not, she is often slow with any perspective on her real foibles. It's no doubt to be expected; especially in a young person, but Patty's creator, too, sometimes seems a little slow in this respect.

Nevertheless, this is a very worthwhile book, with wider scope than the modesty of its design might indicate. There is freshness in Bette Greene's treatment of young romance, and Patty's affair with a French boy is just right. But what makes it transcend the standard romantic intrigue is how the ethnic and cultural identities of such different people are integrated with their individualities, and yet kept distinct, and how these people relate to one another and then grow from the common experience. All of this is delicately understood and handled, as is the psychologically acute, bittersweet denouement that takes place in Germany.

Peter Sourian, "The Nazi Legacy, Undoing History: 'Morning Is a Long Time Coming'," in The New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1978, p. 30.

Geoff Fox

[In Morning Is a Long Time Coming], Patty Bergen's awakening sexuality is realized in her love for Roger, a Parisian With him, she finally sloughs off the inhibitions of her upbring in Jenkinsville, Arkansas (population 1, 170). She is 18, and the independence which prompted her defiance in Bette Greene's earlier (and excellent) Summer of my German Soldier is still feared and resented six years later by the community and her mean-spirited parents. Patty's journey from red-necked America to Paris and Roger allows the recognition that the ugly duckling she has always been told she is has become a particularly articulate and perceptive swan. Since Patty is the narrator, the journey is charted with wit and...

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Kevin Wilson

The story [in Morning Is a Long Time Coming] is predictable enough and so is the heroine's situation, but the novel is saved from banality by the effectiveness of the narrator's technique. By telling the story in the first person the novelist succeeds admirably. The story could have become over-burdened with the bitterness and the adolescent preoccupations of a very unhappy young woman. It does not.

The author also succeeds in mimicking the speech of a nineteen year old. As a result the story is quite realistic and not overly melodramatic. The reader cannot help but empathize with the alienation of the heroine.

Kevin Wilson, in a review of "Morning Is a...

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Judy Mitchell

No one would accuse The Summer of My German Soldier of being an upbeat story. It seems, first of all, to operate on the principle of reversing some standard elements of holocaust literature: the American child is a Jew, but she offers safety to a fugitive German prisoner-of-war.

Her father and mother are terrible people, and Patty's isolation from everyone else in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, is so palpable that some of the children who suffered through the war in Europe seem fortunate by contrast. Patty loved Anton, gave him what help she could, and mourned his death when that help was not enough. For this she is repudiated by her family and persecuted by the townspeople. Her Jewishness is an...

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Susan F. Marcus

[In Them That Glitter and Them That Don't Greene] once again places her young heroine in a family too occupied with their own lives to love or care about her. But this time, unlike Patty Bergen [the central character of Summer of My German Soldier], the girl manages to emerge not unscathed by circumstances, but strengthened by facing up to them. Because everyone in Bainesville, Arkansas, distrusts her conniving Gypsy mother and disdains her drinking father, Carol Ann Delaney must endure her own lonely life. When she is unexpectedly called upon to sing before her high school class, her classmates finally begin to pay attention to her and to appreciate the talent that she has always dreamed would take her...

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Michele Slung

[In Them That Glitter and Them That Don't, Greene] shouts through her characters' conversation, bringing a sophisticated, wise-cracking tone and a cosmopolitan awareness that doesn't match up with the folk of Dexter County, Arkansas. Carol Ann Delaney, not surprisingly, wants to flee her surroundings and better herself, and the way she envisions doing it is by becoming a country singer, "all aglitter in a gown of sequins and feathers," lavishly praised by "the country and western music critic for The New York Times." Or, singing some of her favorite songs, Carol Ann thinks of herself as "there inside those batty Beatles" world within a world. Their zany, joyful world of 'The Yellow Submarine.'" None of...

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Mary M. Burns

Skillfully constructed, [Them That Glitter and Them That Don't] is persuasively real. And while Carol Ann as narrator is undoubtedly the central character, the personality of her mother—half child, half con artist—is a brilliant creation, demonstrating that the parents' uncaring attitude toward their daughter should be understood as dependence rather than malice. Humor rising naturally from the circumstances transforms the grim details of Carol Ann's life into an optimistic chronicle. As she proudly tells her music teacher, she is, like most Gypsies, a survivor—and her argument is convincing.

Mary M. Burns, in a review of "Them That Glitter and Them That Don't,"...

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