World War II at Home: POWs and Rationing
World War II had a great impact on daily life in America. Like the Bergens, Americans were subjected to rationing of supplies such as milk, butter, and gasoline. The shortage of able-bodied male workers forced industry to hire previously marginalized workers, which opened up career opportunities for women. The heroic American working woman was idealized as "Rosie the Riveter." At the same time, many jobs lost to the war effort on agriculture and industry were filled by POWs like Reiker. The government contracted out POW labor to private citizens, with over half of the contracts going to farm work. In the South, POWs picked cotton, cut sugarcane, and harvested tobacco.
Nearly 372,000 Germans were held in U S. prison camps during World War II. Conditions in the POW camps were relatively pleasant, allowing the prisoners to cook for themselves and spend limited amounts of money at their own discretion. Some POWs made friends with Americans from the surrounding communities. However, there was great tension surrounding such relationships, and frequent panics about escapes. There were 2,803 escapes during the war, and fifty-six prisoners were shot while attempting to escape. Thirty-four of them...
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The action takes place during the early 1940s in the fictional Jenkinsville, Arkansas, an eastern Arkansas town located in the heart of the Bible Belt. It is typical of the towns where the U.S. Army set up prisoner-of-war camps in World War II. The incongruity of a prisoner-of-war camp being located in a sleepy Arkansas town sets up the novel's central plot twist: Anton Reiker, a former member of the German Army escapes from the Jenkinsville prisoner-of-war camp and is assisted by a twelve-year-old Jewish girl. A Jew befriending a Nazi, whose party plotted the wholesale destruction of Jewish people, seems outrageous and highly unlikely. But the intense personal relationship between the main characters transcends hate and destruction, and illustrates Greene's main concern: that the universal values of love, trust, and respect cross national and religious boundaries.
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Greene sets her story about a girl's coming of age in a violent family against a backdrop of social oppression and world war. Her book explores these layers of conflict and weaves them into a tightly unified story that focuses on Patty's struggle to accept herself as a worthwhile person.
Although Anton and Patty seem to be extremely dissimilar—he is a good-looking, confident former Nazi soldier who has led a privileged, cultured life; she is a plain, insecure, Jewish girl from a small-town, abusive family—Greene structures her story around the parallels between them. Greene likens the cruelty and injustice Patty experiences at the hands of her father to the pain suffered by those—such as Anton and his father—forced to bend to Hitler's will. Anton articulates this similarity when he asks Patty, "Would your father's cruelty cause him to crush weak neighboring states? Or would the Fuhrer's cruelty cause him to beat his own daughter? Doesn't it seem to you that they both need to inflict pain?" Both Anton and Patty are prisoners seeking escape from this cruelty, seeking a chance to rise above distinctions of race, to be individuals interacting compassionately with one another. But Anton dies in his final attempt at freedom, and Patty is sentenced to a reformatory as punishment for assisting him.
Despite Anton's death and Patty's incarceration, Greene shows that Patty has changed as a result of her encounter with Anton. In a powerful,...
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Because the novel is about prejudice and family relations, it might raise provocative or painful observations that readers recognize in their own lives. Patty, who is extremely attractive as a person but considered an outcast by her family, turns to an "enemy" for acceptance and is punished by society for helping someone she loves. The moral questions posed by this dilemma will raise contemporary questions of right and wrong. An equally strong theme is the hypocrisy of the townspeople who, while outraged that the Nazis are persecuting the Jews, practice segregation.
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: Many American men are drafted into the military services to fight in World War II.
1970s: The final years of the Vietnam War are marked by intense opposition and protests. Many young men eligible for the draft find ways to avoid military service.
Today: The draft has been abolished, and the United States has not been involved in a major military action—except the Gulf War—since Vietnam.
Early 1940s: Germany conquers much of Europe by invasion and occupation.
1970s: Germany is separated into East (communist) and West (democratic) Germany, and Berlin is partitioned by the infamous Berlin Wall. Anyone found trying to escape East Germany is imprisoned or shot.
Today: A reunified Germany is a powerful industrial and financial powerhouse.
1940s: Racial segregation in the American South is not only common, but enforced by law.
1970s: Following two decades of turmoil and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, segregation is illegal.
Today: The "New South" has many African-American elected officials, yet the Confederate flag still flies on the capital of South Carolina, and affirmative action programs have been struck down in some Southern states.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Patty incriminate herself by showing the store clerk, Sister Parker, the ring Anton gave her?
2. Would you end this novel in the same way the author does, with Patty in jail, or would you construct some other conclusion?
3. How does Bette Greene achieve humor in her narrative? What purpose does the humor serve?
4. To what extent is Patty an ideal person rather than a realistic one?
5. Are Patty's parents portrayed fairly? Why does Patty feel that she is to blame for their jabusing her?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Write a paper on the establishment and maintenance of German prisonerof- war camps in the United States during World War II.
2. Compare Summer of My German Soldier with its sequel Morning Is a Long Time Coming. Which is better? Why?
3. What was life like in America's prisoner-of-war camps during World War II?
4. Find as much biographical information about Bette Greene as you can. To what extent does Summer of My German Soldier reflect Greene's real-life experiences?
5. Are Patty's observational abilities beyond those of a twelve-year-old? To what extent, therefore, is the voice of Patty credible? Choose another character in the book and retell a chapter from this person's point of view.
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Topics for Further Study
Summer of My German Soldier was published the year that the United States withdrew its forces from Vietnam To what extent can the novel be read as an allegory about this war?
Research the history of anti-Semitism in America. Is it fair to say that the American South was more prejudiced than the North? Why might Greene have set the story in Arkansas?
Race and ethnicity play very important roles in the novel. How is the situation of Jewish-Americans presented as the same as and different from that of African-Americans?
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Morning is a Long Time Coming, a sequel to Summer of My German Soldier, continues the adventures of Patty Bergen. Like the original novel, the sequel incorporates the author's personal experiences and is narrated in the first person. The story is set in Arkansas and Tennessee, and it begins when Patty graduates from high school, a few years after her fateful encounter with Anton Reiker. Morning Is a Long Time Coming chronicles Patty's trip to Europe and her meeting with Anton's family in Germany.
Greene also wrote Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe and its sequel, Get On Out of Here, Philip Hall!, both told by an eleven-year-old black girl. A fifth novel, Them That Glitter and Them That Don't has as its central character an eighteen-year-old gypsy girl. Despite their different religious and ethnic backgrounds, the central characters in Greene's novels share the same values: consideration, generosity, thoughtfulness, and love.
Greene wrote the screenplay for the 1978 television production of Summer of My German Soldier, with Kristy McNichol in the central role and Esther Rolle as Ruth. Rolle earned an Emmy Award for her performance. Greene says she was able to keep the television production "emotionally true" to the story.
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Summer of My German Soldier was adapted for television in 1978. The film starred Kristy McNichol as Patty, Bruce Davison as Anton, and was directed by Michael Tuckerbook. Greene co-wrote the script. An audio book version of the novel is available from Recorded Books. Published in 1995, this unabridged recording is read by Dale Dickey, and covers six audio cassettes.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Diary of A Young Girl was written by Anne Frank and first published in 1947. Frank's diary is the record of a Jewish family's life in hiding in Nazi occupied Holland during World War II.
The sequel to Summer of My German Soldier was published in 1979. Morning Is a Long Time Coming follows an eighteen-year-old Patty as she leaves for Germany to find Anton's mother. On the way she stops in Paris and experiences her first love affair.
Greene's Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe (1975), chronicles the trials and tribulation of a young woman named Beth as she slowly realizes that she's been changing to win over a guy named Philip Hall. She decides to be her smart, strong self instead.
Judy Blume's 1977 novel, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, traces the life of Sally Freedman as she begins to grow up. Like Patty Bergen, Sally is a Jewish girl living in the South during and after World War II.
S. E. Hinton's Tex (1979) remains a popular novel for young adults. Like Patty, Tex must learn how to cope with the mounting expectations of adulthood while addressing his own family issues
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For Further Reference
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Research, 1976. Gives a brief biographical sketch and a listing of Greene's writings.
Evory, Anne, ed. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Provides a brief overview of the author's life and lists her publications.
Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth Century Children's Writers. New York: St. Martin's, 1978. The article on Greene summarizes her life, provides a revealing quotation from Greene about her childhood, and includes short critical commentary.
Reilley, Carolyn, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 30. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. Contains excerpts from criticism of Summer of My German Soldier, Morning Is a Long Time Coming, and Them That Glitter and Them That Don't.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Osayimwense, Osa, "Adolescent Girls' Need for Love in Two Cultures—Nigeria and the United States," in English Journal, Vol. 72, No 8, December, 1983, pp. 35-7.
Review, The New York Times Book Review, December 2, 1973, p 73.
Saurian, Peter, "Summer of My German Soldier," in The New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1973, p 29.
For Further Study
Buck, Anita, Behind Barbed Wire: German Prisoner of War Camps in Minnesota, North Star Press, 1998.
Buck chronicles the history of fifteen POW camps in Minnesota, illustrating the occasional friendships between town and camp, and the fair living conditions for the prisoners.
Carlson, Lewis H , We Were Each Other's Prisoners: An Oral History of World War II American and German Prisoners of War, Basic Books, 1997.
A wide-ranging collection of interviews and oral histories from both German and American POWs and captors during World War II.
Dinnerstein, Leonard, Anti-Semitism in America, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Dinnerstein traces the history of anti-Semitism in the United States, showing its development from the early colonial period to the present day.
Lemaster, Carolyn Gray, A Corner of the Tapestry A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1990s, University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
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