Summer of My German Soldier, a YA historical fiction novel published in 1973 by Bette Greene, explores themes of self-worth, relationships, empathy, hypocrisy, and prejudice.
Patty Bergen, a thoughtful twelve-year-old girl, lives with her parents, Pearl and Harry, and her sister, Sharon. They are the only Jewish family in their small Arkansas town. Patty’s life changes when she encounters a German POW named Anton Reiker who escapes from the nearby POW camp. When Patty learns that Anton does not support the Nazi regime, she decides to help him by hiding him in the attic above a garage behind the family home. Her courageous yet impulsive act of kindness eventually gets her into trouble when members of law enforcement search for Anton and track him down.
Patty’s father Harry is depicted as an unhappy man, at odds with his in-laws and never speaking about his own parents. He is also indifferent toward his wife and abusive toward Patty. The owner of the town’s department store, Harry bears a grudge against Patty’s maternal grandparents, Grandpa and Grandpa Fried, for their role in the establishment of the department store. In chapter 2, Patty prepares to visit her grandparents and relates,
I’ve never understood exactly why my father disliked them so much. I think the problem may have started when he married my mother, and Grandpa didn't give him a job in his real estate business, S. Fried & Sons. Now, my father is always saying that he’d rather starve than have to work for Grandpa and his brothers-in-law, but I think he resented it all the same.
Patty picks up on her father’s shame in the modest background of her paternal grandparents, the Bergens and notes,
I think my father would still be a ticket seller at Union Station if it hadn’t been for Grandpa and Grandma Fried’s lending him the money to go into business. So wouldn’t you expect him to be all choked up with gratitude? Well, he’s not! . . . It’s as though, in his own heart, he believes that he could never have made it without them. And he hates having needed them.
Harry’s pride is wounded, and his belief in himself is diminished. Rather than taking responsibility for his frustration, he takes his anger out on Patty—perhaps also in unacknowledged anger against his mother, since Patty resembles her.
Through her friendship with Anton, Patty finds a much-needed sense of self-worth to cope with the abuse by her father and feelings of loneliness. Harry is angry at Patty for helping Anton. He fires Ruth, the sympathetic housekeeper, and abandons Patty when she is sent to reform school. However, the Fried grandparents remain supportive of her, understanding that Patty meant to do something good.