Bette Greene Peter Sourian - Essay

Peter Sourian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.