Summer of My German Soldier traces the lives of Patty, a Jewish girl from Arkansas and Anton, a former German soldier who escapes from a US prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The unlikely friendship between the abused Patty and the peace-loving Anton develops after Anton's escape when Patty hides him and they both search for for an identity apart from their traditional roles and national identities.
The major themes include racism and intolerance which are highlighted through the family's treatment of their domestic worker, Ruth, an African-American woman, displaying "uppityness," living in "the South' in the 1940s and therefore, subject to racial segregation and prejudice. Ruth keeps Patty's and Anton's secret because she empathizes with Anton's plight. There is also the subtle but ever present issues that the family discusses, surrounding Jews in Europe at that time. Loyalty to family and country causes conflicting emotions among the characters and Patty will eventually be called a "Jew-Nazi" for having protected Anton.
Patty attempts to create a world for herself where she can be safe and appreciated and openly exaggerates and tells lies without any seeming motivation for doing so. She does not conform or meet her parents' expectations, unlike her sister Sharon, and her self-esteem is accordingly low. It is Anton who will teach Patty to appreciate herself and to see people for what they are. After Anton leaves and Patty is exposed for her involvement, she becomes, essentially, an outcast from her society and is sent away to reform school, which she compares to the "Memphis Zoo," after admitting her part in his escape. However, her emerging self-awareness remains incomplete as, although she sees racism at its worst, being able to understand, rationalize and make a difference, " might take me my whole lifetime."