Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'Summer of My German Soldier', Bette Greene's 1973 book about Patty Bergen, who fears her father more than an escaped Nazi.
(In honor of Passover being two-three? - weeks ago, we are doing a two-part series about Jewish girls during WWII. Today's column is the one with the real Nazi. Please prepare your book reports on Judy Blume's 'Starring Sally J. Freedman, As Herself,' which contains a completely imaginary Hitler, for the comments next week.)
What can we say about a Jewish dad who beats the hell out of his daughter? It is not, to say the least, the common literary conception of "Jewish Dad" found in most old-school YA, where, when Tate is in evidence at all, he is generally a hardworking sort stamping down rags and letting his children choose books from his store, or a kindly dentist dubbed "Dodo bird" by his adoring daughter. (Do your reading for next week, ladies!) In fact, excepting stepfathers, genuinely beastly fathers are rare in YA: while they run the gamut from switching their daughters to make a point (oh, Pa!) to calling them fat and useless, I can't think of any other instance where one whips off his belt to beat his daughter by the side of the road...before he even knows she's sheltering a Nazi.
But then again, a Jewish girl who shelters a Nazi during WWII is not your standard fare, either. Patty Bergen, Jewish daughter of the South, is the actual daughter of Harry and Pearl Bergen, who own Bergen's Department Store in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, as well as the older sister of Sharon, who, though far younger, in generally agreed to be the more beautiful and well-mannered sister. It is not enough that, as a member of the only Jewish family in town in the 1940s, Patty is already barely tolerated among her Baptist peers. (Being the kind of precocious word-lover that reads the dictionary for fun doesn't help either.) But showering adoration on Sharon, Patty's parents in turn treat her with the sort of generic cruelty reserved for other people's (annoying) children—her father with tempestuous irritation: "Are you questioning me? Are you contradicting me?"—and her mother with an endless stream of politely pointed barbs meant to establish just how hideously unworthy to be her daughter Patty truly is:
"When I was a girl," said my mother, turning towards Mrs. Fields, "I used to drive my mother crazy with my clothes. If my dress wasn't new or if it had the slightest little wrinkle in it I'd cry and throw myself across the bed."
"You were just particular about how you looked," said Mrs. Fields.
"I wish Patricia would be more particular," Mother said with sudden force. "Would you just look at that hair?...Here. Go look in the mirror and do a good job. You know, Gussie, you'd expect two sisters to be something alike, but Patricia doesn't care how she looks while Sharon is just like me."
Didn't mother know I was still standing here?...I took in my reflection: "Oh, mirror mirror on the wall, who's the homeliest one of all?"
But Patty, plagued with auburn curls and a persistent intellect, is ill-suited for the stiflingly perma-wave culture in which she finds herself:
Mrs. Fields smiled her adult-to-child smile. "How are you enjoying your vacation? As much as my niece, Donna Ann?"
I wondered how I could honestly answer the question. First I'd have to decided how much I was enjoying the summer — not all that much — then find out exactly how much Donna Ann Rhodes was enjoying it before trying to make an accurate comparison. Mrs. Fields' smile began to fade. Maybe she just wanted me to say something pleasant. "Yes, ma'am," I answered.
There are those who love Patty, chief among them the family's black housekeeper Ruth, who, knowing well that she is fighting a losing battle, tries to help Patty ward off her mother and father's abuse by training her to "act sweet":
"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...."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 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.
Patty's grandfather and grandmother also try to shelter Patty from their daughter and son-in-law, praising her on the family's brief visits and giving her money to buy books. (Patty's grandmother reacts with anger when Patty tries to refuse the gift, having been told by Pearl not to take anything. "But my mother said —" "Your mother!" A deep crease appeared on one side of her mouth. "This is not for your mother to know!") But the cruelty to Patty has a deeply violent side even they cannot stave off, one which frightens even Pearl and the townspeople when her father releases it. When Patty hits a car with a rock by mistake and cracks the windshield, her father releases one of his all-too-common assaults:
At his temple a vein was pulsating like a neon sign...He pointed a single quivering finger at me. "If you don't come here this instant I'll give you a beating you're never going to forget."
....Fingers crossed, I stepped through the opening in the hedge to stand soldier-straight before my father.
One one foot advanced before a hand tore against my face, sending me into total blackness.
We never learn exactly why Harry is so angry, but we do know that his violent release is a horrifying effort to tamp out the individuality that Patty possesses without even thinking—her inability to participate in the town's casual racism, her rejection of the insipid nonthinking demanded of her, her curiosity, her giving spirit. Does Harry fear that Patty's outsiderness will upset the family's already tenuous position in the town's hierarchy? (The only other minority, a Chinese greengrocer, has been chased out already: "Our boys at Pearl Harbor would have got a lot of laughs at the farewell party we gave the Chink," comments the Sheriff, to which Patty's father laughs weakly, while the black residents of the town, who live in "Nigger bottoms," are subject to a constant level of seemingly banal persecution.)
We never know exactly, but we do understand that it is partly her parents refusal to love Patty — to even recognize her—that puts her in the way of Anton Reiker, the POW who, like Ruth and her grandmother, finds much in Patty to respect and like. When Jenkinsville becomes the site for a POW camp housing German prisoners (this kind of thing apparently totally happened!) Patty, who is so open to the outside world she actually instinctively waves at the prisoners, is disappointed by the banal nature of the crew: "In the movies war criminals being hustled off to prison would be dramatic. But in real life it didn't seem all that important. Not really a big deal. My stomach growled, reminding me it must be nearing lunchtime."
When she meets Anton at her father's store (the prisoners, put to work picking cotton, are brought in to by straw hats), she is further confused by how different he is from what she has been led to expect:
...he was looking at me like he saw me—like he liked what he saw.
"I'll take the one you choose," said Reiker. He placed six yellow pencils and three stenographic pads on the counter. "And you did not tell me," he said, "what you call these pocket pencil sharpeners."
"He was so nice. How could he have been one of those—those brutal, black-booted Nazis? "Well, I don't think they actually call them much of anything, but if they were to call them by their right name they'd probably call them pocket pencil sharpeners."
Reiker laughed and for a moment, this moment, we were friends. And now I knew something more. He wasn't a bad man.
Like Ruth, who likes to learn each new word from the dictionary along with Patty, or her grandfather, who praises her letters to the editor, her grandmother, who gives her money to buy books, and even Charlene Madlee, the reporter who helps Patty when it all comes crashing down, Anton is a seeker of knowledge, not a rejecter of it. (Author-subconscious alert: You can actually mark who will be Patty's friend simply by who is interested in her "words" and who rejects them.) But Patty is right: Anton Reiker, the son of a historian who mocked Hitler and a devoted gardener from Manchester, is hardly the kind of conscript Himmler dreamed of. So when she finds him stumbling along the railroad tracks, having escaped from the camp, she takes him in, not caring what might happen to her family, who are a far greater danger to her than he could ever be — or to herself, all in the name of friendship. Even Anton, like some reverse Anne Frank, now housed, clothed and fed by Patty, is perplexed — then amused — by the absurdity:
His mouth came open. "Jewish?" An index finger pointed towards me. "You're Jewish?"
I thought he knew. I guess I thought everybody knew....As I nodded Yes, my breathing came to a halt while my eyes clamped shut.
Suddenly, strong baritone laughter flooded the room...'It's truly extraordinary," he said. "Who would believe it? 'Jewish girl risks all for German soldier.' Tell me, Patty Bergen—" his voice became soft, but with a trace of hoarseness—"why are you doing this for me?"
It wasn't complicated. Why didn't he know? There was really only one word for it. A simple little word that in itself is reason enough.
"The reason I'm doing this for you," I started off, "is only that I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to you."
All this, baritone laughter, little-words aside, as you can imagine, does not end well. In fact, it ends about as badly as you could expect (if you'd like to not know, stop reading now) with Anton dead, shot by the FBI, and Patty in juvenile detention — more estranged from her family than ever, having humiliated them in the eyes of Jenkinsville, the larger Jewish community, and America as a whole beyond reason.
But in the end, this does not matter, Bette Green's work is stunning not only for it's tragic proportions, but for the revelation of the great complexities of love and cruelty, and how we find them in the strangest places. I cried about 900 times while rereading this book, but I cried the most in two instances—when Anton, seeing Patty's father beating her, comes running out of his hiding place to protect her, and then when Ruth, who sees Anton run out, accepts that, as horrible as it is, Patty's refusal to hate will always put her in harm's way:
"I want you to tell Ruth the truth about something. You hear me talking, girl?" I nodded Yes.
"You tell me who is that man."
..."The man is my friend," I said at last.
Ruth signed like she sometimes does before tackling a really big job. "He's not the one the law's after? Not the one from the prison camp?"
Her forehead crinkled up like a washboard. "You telling me, Yes, he's not the one?"
"No, Ruth, I'm telling you yes. Yes, he's the one."
Ruth's head moved back and forth in a No direction. "Oh, Lord, why you sending us more, Lord? Don't this child and me have burden enough?"
But Ruth also knows that Patty wouldn't be Patty if she could refuse Anton's friendship, and she also knows that Anton gives it back in kind: "That man come a-rushing out from the safety of his hiding 'cause he couldn't stand your pain and anguish no better'n me." Patty — and Ruth, and Anton — all have a funny kind of courage, the kind that never gets anyone the kind of medals brandished by the soldier herding the POW prisoners into the truck. Like many others, they're not persecuted for what they do—they're persecuted for what they are. But however much they are hated, they are still not people who can hate.
• • • •
Now, for the winner of this week's challenge: Congratulations, one Rhadika B., whose self-proclaimed "lame guess" was in fact the only correct one: Sooner or Later by Bruce and Carole Hart, the most passed-around flashlight bunk-book of my era.
Seriously, how weirdly pervy is this cover?
I want to add double well-played to Rhadika, since actually I totally forgot to add that the boyfriend was a musician, and actually the hair of the CHARACTER is red, but the hair on the cover really isn't all that red. Take this as a lesson: Never run yourself down! That is for other people who don't know what they're talking about. Rhadika, you've earned the right to demand a column of your choosing. Email me at email@example.com to claim your booty.
Shoutout also to Beth D., who answered a question I didn't even know was a question: For all of those who didn't know what I was talking about last week, the book about the kids solving a mystery involving St. John the Divine and a genie is Madeleine L'Engle's The Young Unicorns, a wonderful, wonderful work that marks the point where L'Engle begins to port Vicky Austin into wacko supernatural territory. Still, my favorite has always been Dragons in the Waters, which stars Polly O'Keefe (I am a Polly!), Meg's daughter, on a freighter, where they also get into all this mishegos involving the Quiztano Indians, who I think are also in a Swiftly Tilting Planet, along with all that Madoc Maddox stuff? Are they? Oy, maybe we should just do L'Engle for like six months and work this all out.
Now to this week's plotfinder, which is actually from reader Kelli S., who emailed me the following:
Here is what I remember....There, for some reason I don't remember why, aren't any adults left. The main character is this girl and her brothers and sisters who have to learn to live on there own. They learn to drive a car and they're always driving around looking for food. At one point thers is some bird in a cage. The bird is a big deal, I can't remember why. They are always worried about this gang of bad kids so they carry around baseball bats to defend themselves. The end up fighting the gang and being able to live in peace. There are some sexual overtones at points. It's very gritty. It's not like the Boxcar Children or anything. I remember the cover of the paperback version we had had this dark blue cover with a picture of a girl getting out of a car in the rain...It was all about survival.
If you know the answer, either stick in it the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send intemperate demands to same. First correct gets it, and I will announce the winner next week!
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
Summer Of My German Soldier
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