Summer of My German Soldierby Bette Greene
An emotional, thought-provoking book from multi-award-winning author Bette Greene.
When her small hometown in Arkansas becomes the site of a camp housing German prisoners during World War II, 12-year-old Patty Bergen learns what it means to open her heart. Although she's Jewish, she begins to see a prison escapee, Anton, not as a Nazibut as a lonely,/b>
An emotional, thought-provoking book from multi-award-winning author Bette Greene.
When her small hometown in Arkansas becomes the site of a camp housing German prisoners during World War II, 12-year-old Patty Bergen learns what it means to open her heart. Although she's Jewish, she begins to see a prison escapee, Anton, not as a Nazibut as a lonely, frightened young man with feelings not unlike her own, who understands and appreciates her in a way her parents never will. And Patty is willing to risk losing family, friendseven her freedomfor what has quickly become the most important part of her life. Thoughtful, moving, and hard-hitting, Summer of My German Soldier has become a modern classic.
"An exceptionally fine novel." —The New York Times
"Courageous and compelling!" —Publishers Weekly
A National Book Award Finalist
An ALA Notable Book
A New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year
Read an Excerpt
Summer of My German Soldier
By Bette Greene
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Bette Greene
All rights reserved.
1. She's A-Coming
when I saw the crowd gathering at the train station, I worried what President Roosevelt would think. I just hope he doesn't get the idea that Jenkinsville, Arkansas, can't be trusted with a military secret because, truth of the matter is, we're as patriotic as anybody.
In front of the station house five or six Boy Scouts in full uniform circled their leader, Jimmy Wells, who was wearing the same expression Dane Clark wore as the Marine sergeant in Infamy at Pearl Harbor. "This is the situation, guys," Jimmy said. "The sheriff told me it's the Army's job to get the Nazis off the train and into the prison camp, but I figger they'll be mighty glad to have us Scouts on hand. And if any of those rats try to make a getaway"—he slapped the leather-encased Scout ax strapped to his waist—"we know what to do."
I looked around for a friendly group to join. Mary Wren was holding onto the arm of Reverend Benn's wife as though that was going to provide her with the Lord's own protection. There are plenty of jokes going around about our town's telephone operator. People say Mary is so generous that she'll give you the gossip right off her tongue.
Then I saw old Chester, the colored porter from my father's store, closing his eyes against the brilliant June sun.
I walked over. "Hey, Chester, don't you think this is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to our town?"
His eyes jerked open. "I'm going back to the stock room right now, Miss Patty. Ain't been gone more'n two, maybe three minutes."
"Don't go on account of me, Chester. I won't tell my father. Honest." Chester smiled wide enough to show his gold tooth. "I've never in my whole life seen a German, I mean, in person. Have you?"
"I seen some foreigners once, but they was fortune-telling gypsies."
I looked over to where Sheriff Cauldwell, Mr. George C. Henkins, the president of the Jenkinsville Rotary Club, and Mr. Quentin Blakey, editor of the Rice County Gazette, were standing on the gray-white gravel. "I wonder what the sheriff is saying about all this," I said, heading toward them.
Mr. Blakey's head was pitched back to look into the sun-and-leather face of the sheriff. "I said, 'Captain, I know you're only doing your job as a public information officer, but I'll never understand why I'm not supposed to write about what everybody here already knows about.'"
"That's telling him, Quent," said the sheriff, looking amused.
"More to it than that," said Mr. Blakey. "Captain wouldn't tell me how many POW camps there are or where they're located, but after awhile he forgot about security—told me that up in Boston they got a bunch of Italian prisoners who do nothing but clean up after the elephants in Franklin Park."
Sheriff Cauldwell leaned his big head back and laughed the laugh of the healthy. "Captain wasn't talking security, he was talking crap."
From down the tracks, a whistle. Jimmy Wells ran over to one of the rails, dropped to his knees, and pressed his ear against it. His features were molded into Dane Clark's odds-are-against-us-but-we-can-do-it expression as he announced, "She's a-coming!"
All talking stopped and the small clusters of people began merging into one single mass. Even Chester, the only Negro, was now standing in arm-touching contact with whites.
Then amid hissing, steamy clouds of white, the train braked, screeched, and finally came to a halt.
From the crowd a woman's voice—it may have been Reverend Benn's wife—asked, "Well, where are they?"
Jimmy Wells pointed to the last passenger car. "There!"
Everyone hurried toward the end of the train in time to see two GIs with their side arms still strapped in their holsters step quickly from the car. Then came the Germans. The crowd moved back slightly, leaving a one-person-wide path between themselves and the train.
The prisoners were unhandcuffed, unchained young men carrying regulation Army duffel bags. They wore fresh blue denim pants and matching shirts, and if it hadn't been for the black "POW" stenciled across their shirt backs you could easily have mistaken them for an ordinary crew from the Arkansas Public Works Department sent out to repair a stretch of highway. I tried to read their faces for brutality, terror, humiliation—something. But the only thing I sensed was a kind of relief at finally having arrived at their destination.
"Nazis!" A woman's voice shouted. And this time I knew for sure that it was Mrs. Benn.
A blond prisoner who was stepping off the train at that moment stopped short then smiled and waved. It was as though he believed, or wanted to believe, that Mrs. Benn's call was nothing more than a friendly American greeting.
I raised my hand, but before I completed a full wave Mary Wren pressed it down, shaking her head.
"I'm sorry, but I didn't think it would be polite—I guess I just forgot," I said, wondering if I was going to be served up as the main course for Mary Wren's gossip of the day.
The last two prisoners stepped off the train—there were fifteen or sixteen, maybe twenty in all. After them came two more American guards, one a sergeant. As the procession walked down the gravel slope to the waiting Army truck Jimmy Wells tapped on the sleeve of the American sergeant. "You mean this is all the Jerries we're gonna get?"
"Don't worry, son," said the sergeant. "We're gonna keep you folks well supplied. Most of them have already been transported here by truck caravan."
The prisoners and then the GIs climbed aboard the canvas-covered vehicle. At the highway it made a right turn and, shifting gears noisily, disappeared from sight.
And so I had seen it; all there was to see. Yet I felt a nagging disappointment as though something were missing. In the movies war criminals being hustled off to prison would be dramatic. Their ravaged faces would tell a story of defeat, disgrace, and downfall. But in real life it didn't seem all that important. Not really a big deal. My stomach growled, reminding me that it must be nearing lunchtime. I followed the railroad embankment toward home, walking sometimes between the tracks and sometimes only on one track, balancing like a tightrope walker.
I passed everybody's back yard: the Rhodes', the Reeves's, the Benn's, their laundry blowing on the line. The reverend wears striped boxer-style shorts, and the Mrs. has very heavy bosoms. Her bras look like a D cup to me.
Parallel to our Victory Garden I ran down the embankment past the lettuce, sweet corn, and tomatoes. The government says that until victory is won everybody with a bit of land should grow their own food. Now, I know my father's patriotic all right, but he's not doing exactly what the government asked us to do. A colored man, Grover, is the one who did the planting.
I could see Ruth on the back porch, squeezing the clothes through the wringer. She is the color of hot chocolate before the marshmallow bleeds in. Sometimes I hear my mother telling her to lose weight. "It's not healthy to be fat." But she isn't actually fat; it's just that she has to wear large sizes. I mean, it wouldn't be Ruth if she were like my mother. And another thing, a little extra weight keeps a person warm inside.
"Hey, Ruth!" She looked up from her wash. "Ruth, know where I was? With the Germans going to the prison camp!"
She gave me her have-you-been-up-to-some-devilment look.
"I didn't do a single thing wrong!" I said, wondering if my wave would count against me. I decided that it wouldn't. "This is still my week to be good and sweet. I haven't forgotten."
Her face opened wide enough to catch the sunshine. "I'm mighty pleased to hear it. 'Cause before this week is through, your mamma and daddy gonna recognize your natural sweetness and give you some back, and then you is gonna return even more and—"
"Maybe so," I interrupted her, and she went back to putting bed sheets through the wringer, understanding that I didn't want to talk about them anymore.
"There was this sergeant guarding the prisoners—you should have seen his medals. I'm going to pray for Robert tonight, that he comes home with lots of medals—more than Jimmy Wells."
"Jimmy Wells?" Ruth repeated the name as though she hadn't heard right. "Jimmy Wells ain't no soldier!"
"No, but he must have about every medal that the Boy Scouts know how to give."
"Well, I don't care nothing about no wars and no medals, I jest cares about my boy coming back safe."
I wanted to tell her she had to care, how important it was for us to win this war. Put an end to Nazism forever! But I could see that Ruth's heart was too troubled to enter into that kind of discussion, so I just said again I'd remember Robert in my prayers.
A slow smile spread across her face and I found myself smiling too. See, I congratulated myself, I don't always do everything wrong.
"Go bring Sharon in from the sandpile," said Ruth. "I'll fix us up some good ole wienies and beans for lunch."
"Oh, I don't think I want any."
"Don't you go telling me what you don't be wanting, Miss Skin-and-Bones."
"Am not! As a matter of fact, if you haven't noticed, I'm really quite formidable." I exposed teeth, squinted eyes, and fashioned claws out of my hands. "Terribly and ferociously formidable!"
"That today's word?" asked Ruth.
"Yes. Isn't it grand? It means 'exciting fear or dread.' Like it?"
"I likes it right well," said Ruth thoughtfully. "But I thinks one of my best favorites is one of them from last month. 'Cause one night after I got home and fixed up some supper for Claude and me and cleaned up my kitchen, I got to noticing my shelf paper was getting a mite yellow so I says I better take care of it right now. Claude says leave it for another time 'cause it's pretty near to seven o'clock and I bees needing my rest. And I says Claude, you is right, but trouble is you done married a fastidious wife. A real fastidious wife."
My sister was sitting straight up in the sandpile, shoveling sand over her legs. Sharon's not yet six—exactly five years and ten months. But whatever she does seems to have, at least to her, a kind of purpose.
"Hey, Sharon," I called, "where are your legs?"
She giggled like she knew something I didn't. "Under the sand, silly."
"Are you absolutely sure? 'Cause once I had a friend named John Paul Jones, and John Paul put both legs under a lot of sand and when he went to pull them out—no legs. All those hungry little sand bugs had eaten them right off."
Sharon lifted her legs straight into the air. She seemed enormously pleased. "Well, I've still got mine. See?"
In the center of the square, breakfast-room table a bunch of back-yard roses lounged in a flowered glass that had once held pimento cheese. Ruth carried in steaming plates of wienies and beans and some cut-up tomatoes, lettuce, and radishes from our Victory Garden. I found my appetite.
Ruth gave Sharon a nod. "Your time to be asking the Lord's Blessing."
Immediately, without thinking, I said my own silent prayer: Please, dear God, don't let my father come in now. Amen.
Sharon clasped her hands tight. "We sure do thank you, dear Lord, for all the food we're going to eat up. Amen."
"Amen, Lord," echoed Ruth.
I heard myself sigh. I think maybe I worry too much. After all, it's just plumb silly to think of him walking in on us right in the middle of our prayers. But what could happen is that Sharon might just mention it. "Christian prayers in my house!" The nerve at his temple would pulsate. Shouts of "God damn you," directed at me and maybe at Ruth.
It's not that he's against praying or anything. Before the gasoline rationing I used to go to Jewish Sunday school at the Beth Zion Synagogue in Memphis, so I know that Jews pray too. My father asked those people down at the Ration Board for some extra stamps, but Mr. Raymond Hubbard said that he thought eighty miles round trip was a long ways to go praying and he couldn't in good conscience consider it a priority item.
"I made up some Jell-O for you," said Ruth, eyeing my empty plate.
"Uhhh, no thanks. I'm all filled up."
"I made it jest the way you like it." Her voice had softened. "It's got bananas and nuts and cut-up bits of marshmellers."
"I'll have a little. Did you, really and truly, make it especially for me?"
"Only this morning I asks myself what would Patty specially like for dessert. Then I tells myself the answer. And now you have your answer too." Ruth leaned back her head to let out a chuckle that was a full octave and a half down from middle C.
My sister took up the laugh. And her top-of-the-octave laugh struck me funny, and then everything was. That's the way it is with Ruth, Sharon, and me. It isn't that our jokes are all that great; it's like Ruth says, "We keep our jubilee in easy reach." Why can't it be that way with my mother and father? "Show them your natural sweetness," Ruth reminds me, "'cause ants ain't the only thing sweetness attracts."
I looked out the window at the summer green and wished for winter white. An Alaskan blizzard with wild winds hurling ice darts onto head-high drifts. For four days and four nights the two of them have been isolated in the store. The power is down, the oil pipes have burst, and there is no food and no water.
Ruth pleads with me not to try to reach them. "You ain't gonna save them; you is only going to kill yourself dead!"
"Fill the thermos with hot soup," I tell her.
Seven times I think I can't go on. The drifts too high, my feet and face beyond any feeling. But I do go on and on and on, and finally I make it. I feed them soup and tuna-fish sandwiches, and when they regain their strength, they tell me how much they love me—how much they have always loved me.
"What you expecting to see out that window?" asked Ruth. "The Second Coming of the Lord?"
Never would I want her to suspect me of dreaming of a miracle. "I was just thinking I might take a walk down to the store. See what's cooking."
She didn't look exactly thrilled by my idea.
"Isn't it you who's always reminding me to be sweet? Now what could be more thoughtful than bringing them up-to-the-minute war news?" They would like that too. Doesn't my father listen to the five-minute news with his neck jutting out towards the radio? And when H. V. Kaltenborn comes on I swear if his nose isn't just about touching the cloth-covered speaker.
Ruth dropped her head into the U between her thumb and her first finger. "I expect you spent the morning advising President Roosevelt on where to send his armies. That where you got your up-to-the-second war news?"
"If you don't think a hundred ferocious Nazi prisoners arriving at the Jenkinsville depot is war news then I don't know what is."
On Ruth's face was the dawning of a smile. "Got some sweetness to go with your up-to-the-second news?"
I stood up. "Maybe you oughta spend a little time telling my father and mother to serve some sweetness to me."
"Reckon they'd listen?"
Ruth nodded her agreement. "Could you tell this old lady why you is always talking about your father when all the other young girls be talking about their daddies?"
"Well, daddies act one way and fathers act another. And anyway, I don't happen to be a young girl. I've been a teenager already for two years."
She laughed. "Oh, Honey Babe, how can you be a teenager when you is only twelve?"
"'Cause I've been one since I was ten. Not many people know this, Ruth, but teenage actually starts when you get two numbers to your age. See?"
I could tell that I hadn't convinced her. "Don't you see, ten is in reality tenteen. Now people don't generally go around calling it tenteen cause it sounds too much like the chewing gum, but that's the only reason."
The smile that Ruth had been holding in suddenly broke through. "Honey, you jest all the time go round making up rules to suit yourself. I got myself two big numbers to my age and I shore ain't no teenager."
"Well, I can explain that. When you have two numbers to your age, you're either teenage or after teenage. And you just happen to be after teenage, understand?"
"I thinks I'm beginning to see the light and I do 'preciate the kind explanation, little Miss Genius."
"Make fun of me and I'll stop talking to you."
"Can't good friends kid each other a little? Make each other smile?"
"I guess so. I've got to go to the store now."
"Hold up a pretty minute, Patty. I want you to do me a mighty big favor only you can do."
I tried to hide my pleasure that somebody needed a favor only I could do.
"I want you to take off them faded old shorts and put on one of them nice pretty dresses of yours."
Excerpted from Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene. Copyright © 1973 Bette Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Like Beth Lambert, Bette Greene grew up in a small town in Arkansas. Her first novel, Summer of My German Soldier, won unanimous critical acclaim and became an immediate best-seller. Bette Greene lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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