Summer of My German Soldier: Novel Summary
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Chapter One begins with a description of a crowd gathering at the train station in Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Patty (Patricia Ann Bergen), the 12 year old first-person narrator, is excited as German soldiers are being brought to the town as prisoners of war. She listens to Mr Blakey, the editor of the Rice County Gazette, talking to Sheriff Cauldwell. He is complaining that he is not allowed to write about the prisoners even though everybody knows of their arrival.
The prisoners arrive by train and are ‘unhandcuffed, unchained young men’ and Patty can see no brutality in their faces. She can only see relief. One of the soldiers waves and she puts up her hand to do the same, but Mary Wren stops her. There are around 20 of them and Patty is disappointed that the story of their arrival is not as dramatic as it would be in a war film.
At home, Patty tells the family’s African-American servant, Ruth, about what she has seen and Ruth says that all she cares about is her son Robert (who has been drafted). Patty then fetches her five-year-old sister, Sharon, from the sand pile and Ruth gives them their lunch. Ruth asks them to say their prayers and Patty prays her father (Harry) does not walk in at that moment as he does not want Christian prayers spoken in his house. It is explained that he is Jewish, but also intolerant. Her imaginative skills are then highlighted as she goes on to dream of saving her parents in a blizzard and then they tell her how much they love her.
Before she sets off for her parents’ department store, Ruth tells her to change into a dress as she must have pride in the way she looks. As Patty walks to the store, the readers are given a description of Main Street and are told it is between Victory Café and the SavMor Market.
When she arrives, her mother (Pearl) says how she wishes Patty were as concerned about her appearance as she was at that age. Patty considers her mother to be beautiful on the outside, but not on the inside and it is clear that Patty lacks in self-esteem: ‘If there were no mirrors or mothers I probably never would know how ugly I am.’
Mrs Burton Benn enters the store and complains about Ruth. Her racism is obvious as she describes her as an ‘uppity Nigra’, because Ruth was in front of her in the queue at SavMor Market and bought the meat she wanted. She wants Patty’s mother to fire her in order to teach her a lesson (for having pride). Patty hopes her mother will defend Ruth, but she only says that she will not fire her as ‘she’s the best cook and house cleaner we’ve ever had.’
Patty decides to tell her father about the prisoners and lies to maintain his interest. She claims that one tried to escape, but he asks to be left in peace to read his newspaper. When she leaves the store, she passes a vacant lot that used to be The Chu Lee Grocery Company. She does not know precisely why they left, but the front window is smashed and remembers Mr. J.G. Jackson (who owns the cotton gin office) telling her father the following: ‘Our boys at Pearl Harbour would have got a lot of laughs at the farewell party we gave the Chink.’ She remembers her father laughing weakly to keep Jackson’s ‘respect’, and he tells her never to mention what she heard. Jackson’s ignorance is demonstrated further as Patty thinks how this would have made ‘more sense’ if Mr. Lee had been Japanese and not Chinese.
Chapter Two begins on Sunday morning and her family is about to embark on a trip to Memphis to see her maternal grandparents. Patty’s father dislikes his in-laws and Patty believes this is because Grandpa Fried would not give him a job in his real estate business. She also thinks her father resents her grandfather for helping him start his own business by lending him money and sees that this does not make sense.
On the journey there, it is apparent that Patty is treated with less patience than Sharon. Patty’s mother also tells her not to accept money from her grandmother if she offers, and Patty questions her acceptance of a mink coat and wonders if Sharon is allowed to have money.
When they arrive, her grandparents show an interest in Patty and her grandfather compliments her on the letter she wrote to the Commercial Appeal. She looks to see what her father thinks, but he is reading, and her mother is filing her nails. Patty considers asking her mother what she thinks of her letter, but does not want to reveal that she values her opinion.
Her grandmother asks her why she does not visit more often. Pearl said it is because she is busy with friends, but Patty refutes this as a lie. She arranges to meet her grandmother the following week alone. When her grandmother gives her 10 dollars to buy books, Patty hesitates, but her grandmother tells her to keep it secret.
Chapter Two ends with the arrival of more relatives and a meal. Pearl is jealous that her brothers are visiting New York and asks why she has not been invited. Her father tells her she never likes anything once it is hers. On the drive back to Jenkinsville, Patty feels she has left home and is going ‘to where I lived’.
Chapter One introduces the readers to the first-person narrator, Patty Bergen, and her difficult relationship with her parents (Pearl and Harry Bergen). She senses a lack of interest from them and attempts to gain her father’s attention by lying about the events surrounding the arrival of the prisoners of war. Her isolation from others becomes more evident as the novel progresses, and this first chapter sets the scene of her loneliness. Chapter Two highlights further how Patty is ignored by her mother and father as the kindness of her grandparents acts as a contrast.
The prevalent racism in the town is also referred to in Chapter One and is most on display when Mrs. Benn asks Pearl to fire Ruth for being ‘uppity’. Prior to this incident, Ruth has mentioned her fear for her son who is expected to fight for his country. The racism aimed at Ruth demonstrates the ignorance of those whites who deem themselves superior to African-Americans, and is a reminder that Robert could lose his life for a country that offers him little or no legal or civil rights. Summer of My German Soldier considers the hatefulness and ignorance embedded in racist beliefs and uses the point of view of a 12 year old to demonstrate the ignorance of adults. This is evident in her love for Ruth and her lack of understanding of the attack on Mr. Lee’s business.