Summer of My German Soldier and the Depiction of Unlikely and Unconventional Friendship
Friendship of the Oddest Kind
Friendship is more than just a social thing that people do it is a part of who God made us and commanded us to be; 1 John 4:7 says “Beloved, let us love one another”. Even Emily Dickenson, known for being a recluse, had a few close friends she would contact through letters. However, very few people would ever think of a young Jewish girl befriending a German and an African American maid, especially in the 1940’s during World War 2. The Germans were known during this time to support anti-Semitism and intimate interactions between Jews and those of the Reich were forbidden; “Marriages between Jews and subjects of German or kindred blood are forbidden…Extramarital intercourse forbidden between Jews and subjects of German or kindred blood”. As far as a friendship between a white and a black person in America during the 1940’s goes, there were no laws against it, but there were people who would frown upon it. But that is exactly what happened in Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier. Young Patricia (Patty) Bergen’s one and only friend seemed to be her house maid Ruth, a middle aged African American woman who cared for Patty and her little sister, Sharon during the day. Until, one summer when she met a German prisoner of war, Anton Reiker, when he, along with other prisoners of war and some guards come into her parents’ store one day to purchase hats for shade from the Arkansas sun. They become fast friends when Patty assists him in purchasing some stationary and a small broach before Anton, along with the other prisoners are escorted out (Greene 42). A German “Nazi”, a Jewish girl and a house maid becoming friends in the middle of a war between the Third Reich and an America that has been segregated by the color of one’s skin since the Civil War ended. Friendship can be seen throughout Summer of My German Soldier, but the best picture of it comes in chapters eleven and twelve where Patty is able to bring her two best friends together.
Anton was now hiding out above Patty’s garage where their friendship grew so much that they began caring for each other as more than friends. Anton even tried to save Patty from her father’s beating; “As the belt whipped backward, I saw Anton with raised fists racing toward my father’s unsuspecting back,”(124). This is where Anton and Patty’s friendship takes a turn for being more than friends. Anton was willing to risk his own freedom for Patty’s safety until Patty showed how much she cared for him and discouraged him from saving her; “Nooo! … Go away! Go away!” (124). She was more concerned about Anton getting caught than being saved from yet another reasonless beating from her father’s belt. Ruth, unlike Patty’s parents, saw Anton run out to try to save Patty and confronted her about it the next day. “That man came a-rushing out from the safety of his hiding ‘cause he couldn’t stand your pain… That man listens to the love of his heart,” (130). Ruth and Anton have something in common; Patty is an important person to both of them. To Ruth, Patty is a young girl who is often criticized by her mother because of the way she looks and beaten by her father because she made him the slightest bit angry. Anton, however, sees Patty as someone he loves and cares for as seen by his attempt at saving her from her father and, later in the story, a kiss as he says goodbye for the last time Bette Greene does not come right out and tell the reader a friendship is beginning to brew, but the signs are there. Anton offers for Ruth to sit with them at the breakfast table: “Anton rose, pulling out a third chair. ‘Come join us.’” (138). Anton’s small, but meaningful, gesture towards Ruth shows that he does not see a difference between himself and her, rather they are both two human beings and equal in that way. Later Ruth takes Anton’s invitation and they begin talking and “Soon Ruth and Anton found a second point of agreement – that a good cook needs and appreciative eater or two,” (139). Here is a thought from Patty from the standpoint of the narrator as she observes the interactions between her friend Ruth and her friend Anton. This thought builds on the fact that Ruth and Anton are getting along even more so. Anton adds a more special layer on to the cake of this new, very different, friendship by asking Ruth to call him by his first name saying to her: “Call me Anton,” (141). Once again this small gesture by Anton means that he wants to be more personal with Ruth by asking her to call him by his first name rather than call him Mr. Reiker. Seeing as Ruth and Anton are not related by blood or genetics, Anton considers Ruth a friend and Ruth complies with his request by later calling him Anton. The three continue talking when Anton says that he must go so as to not cause any trouble to come to Ruth and more importantly Patty. Here, Ruth puts the icing on the cake by offering something to Anton that most escaped prisoners would not receive; “I’ll pack you up some food to take with you…And I have a couple dollars and some change you can have,” (144). Ruth truly sees how much Anton needs help and how much he means to Patty, so she offers him her own money when she has bills of her own to pay, food to buy and a son that is over in Europe fighting on the front lines, she does not have the money to spare to give to this run away German prisoner of war, but for some reason she offers him money. Why? She sees Anton as a friend that she wants to be able to help out in any way she can without getting in trouble with the law for aiding an escaped convict.
Ruth did not have to accept Anton into the house, nor did she have to cook him a hot meal. She especially did not have to give him some of her money for his continued escape. On the same note, Anton did not have to offer Ruth a seat at the breakfast table, nor did he even have to talk to her about the war and philosophy and ethics. In each case, one person accepted the other, not based on the color of their skin or their nationality, but based on the fact that they each thought the other person was a good person and one that was worth talking to and accepting. Patty acted as the middle ground between Anton and Ruth; she brought her two best, friends together not knowing how they would act towards each other.. Ruth and Anton did not develop this friendship for their own health, they both did it for Patty’s sake. They saw that both of them was important to Patty for different reasons and they wanted to make sure she was happy in the end. That is the big picture of friendship in this chapter of Summer of My German Soldier; two people came together at a breakfast table and developed a friendship for the benefit of another. Bette Greene did not spell out this overall big picture for the reader. She strategically placed it within the genesis of a new friendship between an African American house maid and an escaped German prisoner of war who both care for a young American girl so as to make the reader really have to read her book to understand it to the fullest.
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