Friday 19 September 2014

Summer of my German soldier by Bette Greene

Summer of my German soldier by Bette Greene (Puffin Books, 2006; first published The Dial Press, 1973)

ISBN 0 14 240651 1

21 chapters; 230 pages

Subjects: World War Two, United States, Jews, Germans, Prisoners of war, young adult (Year 8-10)

This book  won ALA Notable Book along with New York Times Book of the Year (1973); it was a National Book Award Finalist and was made into a movie in 1978. I read it for the first time for this blog in this Puffin modern classics edition, which makes it yet another modem children's classic that has somehow passed me by until now.  

(From the Puffin page)”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 Nazi--but 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, friends--even her freedom--for 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.”

There are different covers on different editions. I can’t say I like this cover, though.

Patty (or Patricia Anne) has a wild imagination, wistful daydreams and a huge vocabulary gleaned from reading the dictionary. “I don’t actually mean to be rude, but I am. My father says I ask a lot of questions and then go around contradicting every answer.”

She sometimes seems much younger than 12 and sometimes much older, but I love the way she talks and thinks. And I’m in awe of how the story is told completely from Patty’s point of view, but the author shows us so clearly the things that she doesn’t notice or can’t understand. 

Patty’s mother is distant, her little sister Sharon is too young to provide any support and her father is a tortured soul, but we lose sympathy for him when he is physically abusive. The beatings that he deals out are hard to read about and it’s sad to see Patty’s desperate attempts to win her parents' love and affection, which is so freely given to Sharon. Her family life is made bearable by occasional visits to her grandparents and by Ruth, their cook, who calls her “Honey Babe” and is “the colour of hot chocolate before the marshmallow bleeds in.”

Her life changes the day that Anon Reiker walks into her father’s shop, and the place where she is sent to live at the end would be awful, if not for the fact that her home life is so sad anyway. In some ways, it’s an escape. And she has Anton’s words to hold onto: “Even if you forget everything else I want you to always remember that you are a person of value, and you have a friend who loved you enough to give you his most valued possession.”

This review calls the book "a poignant coming-of-age story about a young Jewish girl from a small town in Arkansas who helps an escaped German POW, an act which changes her life forever." 

Apparently there is a sequel, Morning is a long time comingbut I don’t know if I want to read that. I think I’d rather imagine Patty’s  future for myself.   

Author’s website
(From the back page) “Bette Greene was born in Memphis, Tennessee on June 28, 1934 and grew up in a small town in Arkansas.” That makes her just a bit younger in World War Two than Patty, age 12, living in Jenkinsville Arkansas. “In many ways, Patty Bergen is based on Ms Greene’s childhood experiences as a Jewish girl in the South.”  

You can read more about Bette Green on her website

Other books you might like:
So far from the sea by Eve Bunting describes the camps in picture book format. We follow Laura and her little brother Thomas, who are visiting their grandfather's grave in a remote part of the desert. Gradually we learn that their grandparents and their father, as a small boy, were among the thousands of Americans with a Japanese background who were taken to internment camps in World War Two.

Things I didn’t know
I first read about the Japanese interns in So far from the sea, but I had no idea there were so many Prisoner of War camps in America. Like so many other things, it makes sense when you think about it. The German POW camps were in Germany or in German-occupied countries, but for the Allies to set up their own POW camps in England or Europe would use up food and medical resources that they needed for their own troops.

Across the Atlantic, America had masses of food and acres of empty space - and that’s where the POWs went; nearly 425,000 of them, housed in more than 500 camps.  Nearly 23,000 of them – German and Italian – went to Arkansas, where this book is set.

Not many of them escaped, or even tried to. The camps were set in remote locations – and it wasn’t as if they could ever get back home, across the ocean. They had comfortable surroundings and plenty of food; in fact some Americans felt the military was “coddling” them. The camps were closed down after the war and the prisoners were returned to Europe.

You can read more about them here and here

Saturday 13 September 2014

When the siren wailed by Noel Streatfeild

When the siren wailed by Noel Streatfeild (Collins, 1974)

18 chapters; 174 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, London, children, evacuees, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Laura, Andy and Tim Clark are evacuated to the country, like thousands of other London children, at the beginning of WW2. They are billeted in a large house with a “kind but gruff” old Colonel. When he suddenly dies, they are sent to live with the dreaded Miss Justworthy, at which point they decide to escape and try to get back to London to find their parents.

This review mirrors my feelings about the book. There is a lot of heavy-handed explaining, many of the characters are fairly one-dimensional (especially Miss Justworthy, the Evacuee Officer), and the children’s flight back to London isn't very dramatic or suspenseful. Some hugely important plot twists are explained away in a brief sentence or two. The children just aren't very interesting and their dialogue is hard to read (“D’you mean I’ll ‘ave a garden all me own what I don’t share with Andy nor Laura?”)

This is a pity because the subject of evacuees is such a fascinating one, and also because I love many of Noel Streatfeild’s other books, especially The painted garden and Ballet shoes, but this one doesn't have the same magic. 

If you are also a Noel Streatfeild fan, you might like to check out the amusing checklist of How to tell if you are in a Noel Streatfeild novel. Warning signs include: “You are ridiculously talented at one very specific thing”, “So are your siblings. Each of you has a separate, distinct talent, which is fortunate because it means you never have to compete with each other” and “You've never taken a single lesson related to your talents until the story starts. You’re just naturally, amazingly talented.”

(And if you enjoy that, you can go on to find out How to tell if you're in a Dorothy Parker, Jane Austen,Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens or any number of other novels. Complete diversion, sorry. Warning, some entries might be more risque than others.)  

About the author:
This timeline of Noel Streatfeild’s life tells you several interesting things you might not know, such as that she was born on 24 December (perhaps why she was given Noel as a second name) and her first name was actually Mary, that she was employed in WW1 at the Woolwich Arsenal as a munitions worker  (like Johnny’s mother in Lord of the nutcracker men), that she toured England with a Shakespeare company in her 20s and that her London flat was destroyed by a bomb in WW2 .

Other books you might like:
While clearing out some of our book shelves, I  came across another book about evacuee children: Evacuee by Gabriel Alington (Walker Books, 1988.) This treats the subject of evacuees from another angle: that of a timid English girl, Frances (or Fanny) sent away to the USA to live with “Aunt” Bird and her adopted daughter, Pepper. Fanny eventually comes out of her shell, which we know because she gets a new haircut, learns to swim and falls in love with Pepper’s 20-year-old adopted brother (which is slightly creepy as Fanny is only 13.) She also manages to walk into the White House and meet the President.

I think we bought this book at a book fair or second hand bookshops, and it annoyed me because of the plot holes and creepiness factor, but I did learn about the Firsters movement.  The America First movement was against any American involvement in WW2 and one of its leaders was Charles Lindbergh, the famous pilot.

Before Pearl Harbor, aviator Charles Lindbergh was so vocal about his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II that he became an unofficial leader of America's isolationist movement.
Before Pearl Harbor, aviator Charles Lindbergh was so vocal about his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II that he became an unofficial leader of America's isolationist movement.