Summer of My German Soldier deals with an important period in American history, the armed conflict between Germany and America in World War II. Prisoner-of-war camps were established in many American towns to incarcerate captured German soldiers. Summer of My German Soldier describes how the citizens of an imaginary town react to the prisoner-of-war camps located in their community.
Patty Bergen, the twelve-year-old central character, finds growing up painful. Tension within her family compounds her anxiety and her low self-esteem. Abused and all but rejected by her callous parents, Patty befriends a peace-loving escaped German prisoner of war, Anton Reiker. Patty helps Anton hide from the authorities, and the two develop a caring, trusting relationship. What makes this relationship unusual is that Patty is Jewish and Anton is a former Nazi. Both, however, disregard these affiliations when they are together. Each seeks to escape from a violent, oppressive environment, and in each other, Patty and Anton find sources of warmth and comfort. A complex and emotionally wrenching novel, Summer of My German Soldier explores Patty's struggle for approval, affection, and identity.
(The entire section is 181 words.)
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The Arrival of the POWs
Patty's life changes when a group of German POWs arrives by train to be taken to the new prison camp just outside of town. She is struck by the fact that they look no different from anyone else. When the soldiers are brought into town to purchase hats to shield them from the "formidable Arkansas sun," Patty hurries to her parents' store to help out. There is one prisoner who speaks English, and he is singled out to make their purchases. After procuring hats for the men to wear while working in the fields, he approaches the stationery counter to buy writing supplies. Patty is at the counter, and he introduces himself to her. His name is Frederick Anton Reiker. Besides the stationery, he also buys a piece of costume jewelry, seemingly on a whim.
Anton Hides Out
News circulates that one of the prisoners has escaped. The men of the town form a mob, each being told to go home and gather firearms if they have not already brought them. A reporter named Charlene from the Memphis Commercial Appeal comes to Jenkinsville to get the story. Patty offers to guide her to the prison camp. She accepts the offer, and on the way to and from the camp Patty impresses Charlene with her intelligence.
One night, Patty hears a train approaching. She looks out the window of her room and sees someone hiding in the bushes, apparently about to jump onto the train. She goes outside and...
(The entire section is 999 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
It is the early 1940s, and war fervor is high in the small town of Jenkinsville, Arkansas. A prisoner-of-war camp has been established nearby, and many of the local residents have gathered to witness the arrival of the first group of Germans to be incarcerated there. Twelve-year-old Patty Bergen is among those who have come to share in the excitement. She is a little disappointed to find that the prisoners, perhaps twenty in all, are young men who, except for the letters "POW" stenciled across their blue denim shirts, are quite ordinary in their demeanor, exhibiting none of the evilness and brutality she would expect in the appearance of the enemy.
When Patty returns home, Ruth, the family's Negro housekeeper, makes lunch for her and her six-year-old sister, Sharon. During the course of the meal, Patty, Ruth, and Sharon engage in good-natured repartee. Patti wishes that she could share the same easy familiarity with her mother and father too.
Patti tells Ruth about the arrival of the German prisoners, and says that she is going to pray that Ruth's son, Robert, comes home from the war with "lots of medals." Ruth muses that she does not care about wars or medals; she just wants Robert to return safely. When Patti says that she is going to go down to the family's store to tell her father the news about the POWs, Ruth gently urges her to wear one of her pretty dresses, not only to please her parents, but to show pride in herself.
The family business, Bergen's Department Store, is located on Jenkinsville's Main Street. Patty's father is talking with a salesman when she arrives, and makes it clear that he does not wish to be interrupted, so Patty approaches her mother instead. Mrs. Bergen is chatting with a customer, Mrs. Fields, who compliments Patty on the dress she is wearing, but Patty's mother interjects that her daughter is only wearing the dress because Ruth has told her to. Mrs. Bergen then begins to complain about Patti's disdain for her own personal appearance, comparing her to her sister Sharon, who, in contrast, always takes pains to make herself look nice. Frustrated, but accustomed to being derided, Patty launches into her news about the POWs, but her mother dismisses what she has to say with a petulant comment about how dangerous it is "having those criminals a mile from town." She then gets on the phone to arrange for a hair appointment for herself with an accomplished stylist over in Wynne...
(The entire section is 701 words.)
Chapters 2-3 Summary
On Sunday, the Bergens drive to Memphis to visit Grandma and Grandpa Fried. On the way, Patty tries to initiate a conversation with her parents by telling a joke, but her father crossly tells her not to bother him while he is driving. A little while later, Sharon jumps up off her seat and squeals, "There's a bee on you...April fools!" Her parents respond indulgently for a while, but when they tire of the little girl's antics, Mother brusquely orders Patty to amuse her sister.
Grandpa and Grandma Fried live in an affluent neighborhood, in contrast to Mr. Bergen's parents, who were "the poorest of the poor." As the family approaches their destination, Mrs. Bergen tells Patty that if Grandma tries to give her money, she is not to take it. Sharon, however, will be allowed to receive gifts from her grandparents, because she is still little. Grandma Fried greets the Bergens heartily when they arrive, and Grandpa quickly engages Patty in an adult conversation about a letter to the editor she has written about President Roosevelt.
The dining room table is set for fourteen people; in addition to the Bergens, a variety of aunts, uncles, and cousins are expected. Patty notes that at home, Ruth does all the cooking, while here, Grandma prepares the meals herself. As she observes the table laden with Jewish delicacies, Patty reflects that it is "like finally coming home."
Grandma, who understands clearly the situation between Patty and her mother, takes her granddaughter aside and promises to plan a special day for just the two of them. Patty will come out to Memphis by herself on the train, and she and Grandma will go shopping and have lunch at the Hotel Peabody Skyway. In addition, Grandma insists on giving Patty ten dollars to buy some books she wants. When Patty dutifully protests, her grandmother says, "This is not for your mother to know." During dinner, the family talks about the war, and then Aunt Dorothy mentions that Grandpa's company is sending Uncle Ben and his family to an insurance meeting in New York. Mrs. Bergen angrily complains that Grandpa shows favoritism to his sons, but Grandma rebukes her, asserting that while the boys are appreciative of what they are given, she herself has "never liked anything once it was [hers]."
Back in Jenkinsville, Patty is working at the store one day when the German POWs are brought in to shop for essentials. Patty wonders momentarily if they understand...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
Chapters 4-5 Summary
Giddy with the thought that Anton Reiker might indeed be her friend, Patty becomes desperate to talk to someone about him. She approaches Sister Parker, who works over in the notions department of the store, and nonchalantly brings up the subject of the German prisoners in general. After engaging in some small talk, Patty boldly mentions Anton, telling Sister Parker that one of the POWs spoke perfect English, and was exceptionally polite. Suddenly interested, Sister Parker says that she saw Patty smiling and laughing with Anton, and insinuatingly asks if she liked him. Realizing her mistake, Patty prevaricates, telling the older woman that she can spread any kind of gossip that she wants, but that the truth is that Anton had told her that he hates Hitler, and prays that God will allow the Americans to win the war.
Still anxious to talk to someone about her new friend, Patty goes to visit one of her classmates, Edna Louise Jackson. Edna Louise is "boy crazy," so Patty knows she will understand. When Patty reveals that she has met someone she likes, and that he is a German from the prison camp, Edna Louise retorts, "That's almost as bad as going out with a nigger!" Repulsed by the girl's reaction, Patty responds that Anton is a very good person, and that someday, they will meet again under better circumstances. Patty says she has to go home in an attempt to quash the opportunity to divulge further tantalizing news to her classmate, but Edna Louise has already lost interest in her story, focusing her attention back to the soap opera she had been listening to on the radio.
On Thursday, Patty takes the train to Memphis, where Grandma Fried treats her to a lavish lunch and a shopping spree. The older woman hints at other days like this to come, and Patty, elated, promises that next Thursday, when she returns, Grandma will not have to spend a cent on her, adding poignantly, "I just want to be with you." Sadly, Patty has misinterpreted her grandmother's intentions. Grandma Fried will be going away on vacation and will not be back until the end of August. Bitterly disappointed, Patty feigns indifference, but weeps all the way home on the train.
The rest of the summer stretches ahead dismally; all of Patty's friends are away at Baptist Training Camp, and there is no one to talk to and nothing to do. Bored and lonely, Patty bikes out to the prison camp a few times, but never does see Anton Reiker. Patty begins...
(The entire section is 706 words.)
Chapters 6-7 Summary
Patty likes Saturdays because the "country folks" come into town to do their shopping, and she is usually allowed to help out at the store. In preparation, she puts on her favorite dress which she had been allowed to pick out herself, a light-blue middy with no sashes or lace, and brushes her hair vigorously, for once appreciating its buoyancy and rich, natural auburn color. On her way downtown, Patty overhears some men talking about a group of Nazi saboteurs who have been caught on the American coastline. When she arrives at the store, she excitedly relays the story to her father, who, after an initial reaction of skepticism, actually seems to appreciate receiving the news. When she tries to share the information with her mother, however, Mrs. Bergen characteristically ignores what she is saying, and tells her to go play with her friends instead of hanging around at the store.
When Patty tries to convince her mother to let her stay, Mrs. Bergen stops her work and looks at her daughter carefully, examining her appearance. She decides that Patty needs to have her hair done in a permanent wave, and makes an appointment with old Mrs. Reeves, a notoriously bad hairdresser who is known mainly for her work in "fix[ing] up" the dead ladies at the local funeral parlor. When Patty vehemently protests, Mrs. Bergen first tries to shame her into going, then summons Mr. Bergen, who threatens Patty with a licking if she does not comply with her mother's wishes. Patty has no choice but to keep her appointment with Mrs. Reeves, and, as expected, leaves the beauty parlor with her thick tresses ruined, set into "a hundred frizzledy-fried ringlets" of ugly, scorched hair.
When Patty returns home, Ruth cuts off the worst of the mess on her head, fuming angrily against those who would so wantonly "[mess] up something beautiful." Patty retreats to the peace and solitude of her hide-out above the garage, which is clean and quite comfortable, now that she has fixed it up. As she sits by the back window, thoughtfully gazing out towards the railroad tracks, she catches a sudden glimpse of a man running below the embankment, away from the depot. Something about the figure is vaguely familiar; with a sense of shocked disbelief, Patty recognizes Anton Reiker. As a train rumbles past, she runs out toward the fugitive, waving her arms and calling his name. When he finally notices Patty, Anton is at first alarmed, then relieved; he reaches out to...
(The entire section is 575 words.)
Chapters 8-9 Summary
At breakfast the next morning, Patty sees "the biggest, blackest headline...since Pearl Harbor" on the front page of the daily newspaper. The article announces the capture of eight Nazi saboteurs on the coasts of Florida and New York, and describes an underground network within the country which had reputedly been ready to assist them. The piece ends with the ominous warning, "Any person acting as a spy in wartime shall suffer death."
Thinking of Anton over in the hideout, Patty tells herself that he is not a Nazi, and she is not a spy; although she knows that her actions would not be applauded, she rationalizes that she is simply helping a captured German soldier. She reads another article about a local boy who has been killed in combat; this young man is described as "a brave soldier and a splendid patriot," and Patty wonders at the dichotomy between helping one's country and helping someone from an enemy country. When breakfast is over and Ruth is occupied in another area of the house, Patty packs a paper bag with food from the refrigerator and heads out to the apartment over the garage. Although she desperately wants to see Anton again, a part of her hopes that he has left.
Anton is indeed still waiting at the hideout, and although he momentarily reacts with anger when Patty shouts out his name as she arrives, his ire quickly subsides, and he expresses pleasure and gratitude that she has come. The escaped soldier insists that Patty share the meal that she has brought for him, and as they eat, the two talk companionably. Anton tells Patty about his father, a highly regarded professor of history at the University of Gottingen, who chose "acquiescence and life rather than resistance and death" when Hitler came to power and the freedom to speak out was curtailed. His mother is a cultured woman whose primary virtues are "her warmth and her great sense of fun;" it is clear that he misses her greatly. Anton also has a younger sister whom he says he had never had time for, and he fervently hopes that he will have another chance to make things right with her.
Anton has been incarcerated for twenty-seven months, and engineered his escape just because he was desperate to be free. He had been able to get out of the prison camp by bribing a guard with the diamond pin he had bought at Bergen's Department Store; the hapless enlisted man had believed that the fake jewels were real. Anton asks Patty why she...
(The entire section is 824 words.)
Chapters 10-11 Summary
After their trip to the prison camp, Charlene Madlee drops Patty back off in town, expressing her appreciation for her company and offering her help if ever Patty should need it. Back at home, Patty brings Anton lunch and some fresh clothes, including a shirt she had chosen for her father two Father's Days ago. Patty had used all her birthday money to buy her father the beautiful, expensive blue shirt, but instead of being pleased with the gift, he had dismissed it uncaringly, and had even gotten irritated when she had pointed out that she had had his initials embroidered on the pocket. In contrast, Anton expresses true appreciation for the offering, and thanks Patty with sincerity, touching her cheek gently with his hand.
Anton is shocked when Patty tells him that the FBI has come to Jenkinsville to investigate his disappearance, and he perceives that, because of the capture of the German saboteurs, the timing of his escape could not have been worse. He tells Patty that he wishes he possessed "a bit of [her] courage," and Patty feels at last that she is "a good and worthy person." Her euphoria is short-lived, however, when Anton talks about being with his family again, and she realizes that he does not plan on taking her with him. Overcome by a sense of betrayal and a reawakened awareness of her own perceived ugliness, Patty leaves Anton and goes to the front of the house to brood.
Freddy Dowd happens to come by as Patty is sitting on the steps, and as he jabbers on about crawdads, his latest interest, she reflects that he is an outcast, just like her. Mr. Bergen drives up, and Patty, remembering that her father has forbidden her to associate with Freddy, urgently whispers to the boy to leave. Patty's father has already seen Freddy, however, and is livid that his daughter has disobeyed him. Without giving her a chance to explain, he chases Patty to the back of the house and beats her brutally with his belt.
As she cowers under her father's blows, Patty catches a glimpse of Anton, racing with raised fists towards her father's back. She shouts, "Go away! Go away!" and with a look of horror, Anton freezes, covers his eyes, and returns to the garage.
The next morning, after Mr. and Mrs. Bergen have left for work, Ruth summons Patty into the kitchen, and asks her about the man who had wanted to save her from her daddy's violence; Ruth had been watching from the house, and had seen Anton...
(The entire section is 833 words.)
Chapters 12-13 Summary
Ruth serves Anton and Patty a fine breakfast, and is surprised when Anton asks her to join them. Patty is certain that no white man has ever offered the housekeeper a chair before. Ruth at first respectfully declines, but later joins the two, sitting at the table with a cup of coffee. Ruth and Anton engage in a light conversation, while Patty basks in the amazing warmth of her "two favorite people getting to know each other." Ruth asks Anton how "colored folks" are treated in Germany, and, to her astonishment, he replies, "There aren't any."
Ruth tells Anton what it has been like for her as a Negro woman in twentieth-century America. When she was a child, her mother had saved pennies so that Ruth could get an education and become a teacher; she had entrusted her money to Mr. J. G. Jackson, the grandfather of Patty's friend Edna Louise. When the time had come for Ruth to go on to college, only a few dollars remained in the envelope Mr. Jackson had kept for her in his office safe; Ruth's mother had never even imagined that the rich white man would be so conniving and heartless as to steal from a poor black woman. Ruth had tried to be wiser in her own financial dealings when her son Robert had been born, putting the money she struggled to save for her son's education in the Rice County National Bank for safekeeping. But just when Robert was about to matriculate at Morehouse College, he was drafted. Even though he had been treated like a second-class citizen all his life, the head of the draft board declared that Robert must "do his share so this country will always belong to 'us' Americans."
Ruth wonders whether the world "is ever gonna amount to much," and Anton admits that he is "not exactly overburdened by excessive optimism" in this regard. He says that many believe religion is the answer, but muses that there is also much evil perpetrated by "religious" men. He also has little hope that a better world will be achieved as a result of more education or better leaders; Anton believes that positive change will be affected only when men learn to value love over hate and creation over destruction.
The placid, companionable mood of the morning is shattered when a car drives up; in a panic, Ruth tells Patty to hide Anton under her bed. Fortunately, it is only Sue Ellen's mother, who has stopped by to ask if Sharon can go shopping with them in Wynne City. The episode, however, makes Anton realize that he is exposing...
(The entire section is 715 words.)
Chapters 14-15 Summary
In the days after Anton's departure, Patty tries to get accustomed to the aching void which she knows will never be filled. School begins, and she wears the ring he gave her on a chain around her neck. The ring reminds Patty of Anton's "last lesson" to her, that she is a person of value who is worthy of being loved.
Patty walks into the store one day to find her little sister Sharon showing off, singing and dancing like Shirley Temple before a small audience of customers and her doting parents. Mr. Bergen gushes about his younger daughter's abilities, bragging that with her beauty and talent, she would be a sensation in Hollywood. In a sudden fit of bitterness and anger, Patty speaks meanly to Sharon, then immediately chastises herself for failing to live up to Anton's positive perception of her. She goes over to help Sister Parker pack bags of candy for the store, and then, hungry for attention, foolishly shows the woman her ring, bragging that it is solid gold.
Sister Parker is very interested, and asks Patty where she got the ring. Patty makes up a story, telling her that she had met a whiskered old man on the road who had asked her for something to eat; when Patty had brought him the "best food" from the refrigerator as he waited on the back porch of the house, he had said that she was "obviously a person of value," and given her his most prized belonging, the ring. To Patty's horror, Sister Parker calls Mr. Bergen over, and asks him to examine the ring. Recognizing that it is indeed an expensive piece of jewelry, he is immediately suspicious, and demands to know why Patty has it in her possession. When Patty repeats the story about the whiskered old man, he accuses her of letting the man put his hands on her. Calling her a liar and a "filthy, fil-thy girl," he strikes her down, causing her to fall backwards and knock over the magazine stand. As he stalks away, she shouts after him, "I don't love you. Nobody does!"
Appalled by the violence she has witnessed, Sister Parker helps Patty to the back room of the store, where she fetches a cold towel for her bruised face. Mr. Bergen calls Sheriff Cauldwell, who comes in to question Patty about the ring. The sheriff's manner is gentle, in stark contrast to that of Patty's father. Patty once again tells the story about the whiskered man whom she had helped, and, in response to the lawman's probing...
(The entire section is 595 words.)
Chapters 16-17 Summary
As fall wanes and winter draws near, Patty evaluates the gains and losses in her life. Her losses, though they are greater than any gains, are only one: Anton. Her gains include her relationship with her father. Although she knows that Mr. Bergen still does not love her, Patty recognizes that he now looks at her with something akin to respect, and the knowledge that, whatever he does, he will never destroy her. Patty is sitting in the hideout alone one day, ruminating about these things, and making plans for her future. She fantasizes about using the thousand-dollar war bond that Grandpa and Grandma Fried have given her for her education to go to Germany, where she will be united with Anton once again.
Patty's reverie is interrupted by Ruth, who calls out that Mr. Bergen is coming home and wants to see her. Ruth cautions Patty just to let her father have his say about whatever he wishes to discuss. Patty agrees, but worries that he will try to take Anton's ring away from her. The ring is the most valuable thing she owns; it is like her Bible, and, in Ruth's words, it tells "one of them same stories the Bible do, love thy neighbor."
Mr. Bergen arrives with two men from the FBI. One of them, Mr. Pierce, wishes to interrogate Patty. Mr. Bergen tells him that though his daughter is a liar, she is nonetheless a loyal American and "wouldn't spit on a Nazi if his body was on fire." Mr. Pierce questions Patty about the "tramp" to whom she had reportedly given food during the past summer, and from whom she had received a ring. After peppering her with a series of rapid-fire queries, he shows her a picture of Anton, and a blue shirt with a tear near the shoulder. The shirt is the Father's Day gift that Mr. Bergen had rejected and that Patty had subsequently given to her friend.
As Mr. Pierce accuses her of having given the shirt to an escaped prisoner of war, Patty realizes that the hole in the fabric is stained with blood. Hysterically, she screams, "Did you hurt him?" and when the FBI agent demands the person's name, she cries out, "Frederick Anton Reiker." A jubilant Mr. Pierce takes from his briefcase a notice affirming that Frederick Anton Reiker has been shot in New York "while trying to avoid arrest." Beyond reason, Patty lunges at the agent, scratching his face and screaming, "Murderer!"
Having implicated herself in Anton's...
(The entire section is 564 words.)
Chapters 18-19 Summary
The FBI agents get permission to take Patty into Memphis as her father has demanded. They assume that he is going to accompany his daughter when they take her in for questioning, but when it is time to go, Mr. Bergen says he cannot leave, because he is waiting for a call from his lawyer. As Patty walks out the door with the agents, she says good-bye to her father, but he does not answer.
As Patty and the two men walk to the car that is parked downtown, they must pass through a crowd of people milling around Bergen's Department Store. Word of Patty's ignominy has spread, and she is spat upon and called a "Jew Nazi-lover" by angry citizens. Sheriff Cauldwell intervenes, berating the crowd and making them disperse. As Patty gets into the FBI agents' car, the sheriff hands her a Bible, telling her, "Times when I was down this helped lift me up."
The agents take Patty to her grandparents' house in Memphis. Patty apologizes for all the trouble she is causing, but Grandma Fried says that the whole situation is ludicrous and that Patty has no need to be ashamed. In the morning, Patty goes with the lawyer her father has hired to the offices of the FBI. She tells the agents everything they want to know and insists that she acted alone; no one else knew what she was doing.
When they are finished with their interrogation, the FBI agents take Patty back to her grandparents' house, advising her to stay there for a while, as her parents are being harassed back in Jenkinsville. Mr. and Mrs. Bergen have been receiving threatening phone calls, and the window of their store has been broken. Patty does not understand why they should be facing their neighbors' wrath when they had nothing to do with what she did. In the evening, Charlene Madlee, the reporter from the big city newspaper, comes to visit. She says that the Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute Patty under the Treason Act because of her age, but warns that if there is a public outcry, the state of Arkansas may charge her with a lesser crime, such as delinquency, and send her to reform school.
Mr. Kishner, the Jewish lawyer chosen by Patty's father against the FBI agents' advice, is reluctant to get involved in her predicament, but Mr. Bergen uses his influence with the Beth Zion Synagogue to force him to take the case. Although Patty wants to explain to the judge that she had helped Anton because "he wasn't a Nazi or a spy," but was "the kindest,...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
Chapters 20-21 Summary
Patty has served a month of her four-to-six-month sentence at the Arkansas Reformatory for Girls when Christmastime finally arrives. On Sunday morning, Miss Laud, the head matron of the facility, announces that she has a visitor, her first in the entire time of her incarceration. It is Ruth, who has come all the way from Jenkinsville on the Greyhound bus. Ruth greets Patty with a warm, welcoming smile and a hug, and in the circle of her protector's arms, Patty feels "freshly born."
In a gaily striped red-and-white shopping bag, Ruth has brought Patty two of her favorite foods: a box of ginger snaps and six homemade fried chicken breasts, each sitting on "its very own pink paper napkin." As Patty samples her treats, Ruth mentions that she had seen Mrs. Bergen and Sharon a couple of weeks ago at the market. When Patty asks if her mother had mentioned her at all, Ruth at first tries to prevaricate, then tells her the truth. Mrs. Bergen had said that Patty was writing to her occasionally and that she had sent her a sweater to wear at the reformatory; she had then resignedly observed that Ruth had always been the only one who knew how to handle her recalcitrant daughter. Patty reacts with anger at her mother's words and wonders why her parents only care about controlling her instead of just letting her be. She then asks Ruth poignantly:
"What's really wrong with me? There's just gotta be something or I wouldn't always be getting into trouble, having people hate me."
Ruth tries to reassure Patty that there is nothing at all wrong with her, but the child is deeply agitated, insisting that if she only knew what her terrible character defects were, she would immediately get to work at ridding herself of them. Ruth tells Patty that she, for one, loves her better than all the other members of the Bergen family and reminds her that Anton loved her too, enough to want to sacrifice his life for her. Patty laments that she no longer has his ring, which seems to have lost its meaning anyway, but Ruth takes the ring out of her pocketbook and returns it to her. Patty had given it to her for safekeeping when the FBI had come to take her. In the turmoil of the succeeding months, she had forgotten it.
Ruth then tells Patty a hard truth: it is her parents who are lacking something. For whatever reason, they are incapable of loving their older daughter, and Patty needs to accept this and...
(The entire section is 721 words.)