Summer of My German Soldier Themes
Race and Ethnicity
The most important theme of Summer of My German Soldier is the separation of racial and ethnic groups. Patty's religion, Ruth's race, and the prejudices of Jenkinsville all play against each other to illustrate the problematic racial politics of rural Southern culture in the 1940s.
The inherent racism of the South is illustrated most obviously through the character of Ruth, the family's maid. She rarely talks about the daily prejudice she faces, but the reality of her situation is revealed in several key scenes. In one such episode, a neighbor demands that the family fire Ruth for her "uppityness." Even Patty initially thinks in these racist terms, as shown by her later rejection of them. As she says, "Ruth isn't one bit uppity. Merely prideful." As the descendant of slaves and the potential victim of lynch mobs and crowd hatred, Ruth already knows more than enough about violence and the corruption of power. Because of this, Ruth is immediately drawn to Anton's plight. He is hunted, imprisoned, and cast out from the world for being German, just as Ruth is despised for being black.
Initially, the Bergen family's Judaism is not an obvious issue in either the novel or the town. At times this seems to be deliberate, as when the family discusses the fate of their relatives in Nazi-occupied parts of Europe. When Grandmother Fried says she worries because she has not heard from their relatives in quite some time, there is only silence in response. Any intimations of anti-Semitism in their town are subtle. Most obviously, her father is not granted extra rations of gas to go to a synagogue forty miles away since it is deemed a waste of resources.
More subtly, Harry's minority status forces him to go along with the majority opinion. For instance, Harry does not try to stop the townspeople from evicting a Chinese-American storekeeper after war with Japan is declared However, when Patty is revealed as the one who sheltered Anton, suddenly her and her family's Jewishness becomes a factor. Her father expresses outrage that she, as a Jew, would help a Nazi. Moreover, the townspeople deride her with cries of "Jew-Nazi." In an ironic parallel with earlier events, her parents are forced out of their store.
Patriotism and Identity
Anton, Patty, and Ruth have complex personal identities that are in conflict with national identity and patriotism. Anton Reiker is a divided character: both a Nazi and a German, the book serves to humanize him and define him in much broader terms. Educated, polite, and a speaker of perfect English, Anton cannot be seen as simply a German Nazi soldier. By hiding him, Patty is considered as treasonous and subversive; her Jewish heritage exacerbates the public outcry against her
Ruth is not patriotic, which stems from her treatment as a second-class citizen; because of her feelings toward the dominant culture and the way that it has treated both herself and her son, Ruth feels no particular loyalty to it. This enables Ruth to help Anton when she finds out that Patty is hiding him, so that she too is guilty of "collaboration with the enemy."
Throughout Summer of My German Solider, morality is often indicated by a character's ability to see beyond stereotypes. Many of the business leaders of Jenkinsville are identified as immoral through their "patriotic" act of evicting a Chinese grocer in response to Japanese aggression. The POW camp doctor, on the other hand, is demarcated as a morally sound character through his sensitive understanding of Anton. As he says of the German POWs, "not all are rabid Nazis ... Reiker wasn't cut from that mold ... [H]e seemed like a decent man." This lesson is one that Patty must learn over the course of the summer. In learning it, she goes from being a patriotic young woman to being guilty of treason.
The Juvenile Novel
Summer of My German Summer is typical of the literary genre known as the juvenile, or young adult, novel. The juvenile novel is typically a...
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