Gentlehands is the mild yet effective tale of a teenager’s first experience with love that leads him to a disturbing discovery about his maternal grandfather’s involvement in Nazi war crimes. Set in the mid-1970’s in Seaville, New York, the story is a timeless one in that people have always allowed themselves to be isolated from one another by such self-imposed barriers as money and race. While M. E. Kerr offers readers a frank portrayal of human intolerance and prejudice, few would find the tone of the book to be sermonizing.
The story itself is quickly read and easily followed. The protagonist, Buddy Boyle, is first encountered in the middle of a summer romance with Skye Pennington, a vacationing socialite two years his senior. His middle-class family strongly opposes the attraction, claiming that Skye will make Buddy forget where he comes from but obviously fearing that Buddy will be hurt. Buddy continues to pursue the relationship, often covertly, ignoring his obligations to his own family and to his job at the Sweet Mouth Soda Shop.
Eventually, Buddy does begin to feel the need to impress Skye, and he takes her to meet Frank Trenker, the grandfather with whom he himself has had no contact throughout his life. Buddy is easily charmed by his wealthy, sophisticated grandfather, who is kind to Buddy and Skye and to the stray animals that he often takes into his home. After briefly living with his grandfather, however, Buddy learns that Nicholas DeLucca, a man whom Buddy met at a party and who inadvertently led him to his grandfather, is seeking Trenker as the murderer of his cousin in a Nazi concentration camp.
Ultimately, the truth that Buddy’s grandfather, known as Gentlehands in Germany, was indeed a cruel concentration camp warden is revealed in the town newspaper. Buddy, with mixed feelings, seeks out his grandfather but finds that he has fled to safety. Although Buddy is disappointed in his grandfather, he has learned from him to be true to oneself and to value family closeness. This revelation, along with Buddy’s newfound appreciation of his family and Skye’s eminent departure for college, brings their dwindling romance to its conclusion.