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This is another book that was loaned to me as a child by a kind hearted teacher. It is one that stayed with me so much, I wanted to read it again as an adult, and see if I took anything different from the book. I must say my reaction to this book as an adult is completely different to my childhood thoughts on it, but one thing hasn't changed - this is still an exceptional book. I loved this book as a child, and I loved as an adult, but in different ways. Please note - I have really tried to capture the spirit of the book without spoilers, but there is one brief section which refers to an event, midway through the book, which I feel you couldn't help but see coming. It is the way this event is handled that makes the book so special, but if you want to be certain to avoid spoilers , please skip the single paragraph marked by ~~~~~.
I have read this book referred to as a romance, and as a child, I might have agreed with that title. As an adult, I do not, and I have to say I would find the idea of a romance between a 12 year old girl and a grown man a bit creepy to say the least. But it is a love a love story in a sense, a story of a love deeper than childhood infatuations, as well as a wild schoolgirl crush.
The author of the story, Bette Greene, is meant to have taken much of the details ( minus the German Soldier) from her own childhood in the American South. There is something in her writing that reminds very much of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', and it seems impossible that the person describing this scenes could do so without having ever experienced them. I was a bit shocked at first at the use of racist terminology in this book, but as you get into it, you realise it is appropriate to the time and location.
The main character is Patty Bergen, a 12 year old Jewish girl in the Deep South's bible belt. Like most children, she wants to fit in - to be like the others. She wants to go to Summer Camp with all the other girls her age, but her parents do not want her attending a Christian Camp. More than anything, she wants her parents love, but her mother seems to shun her in favour of her beautiful younger sister, and her father is a bitter, violent and twisted man with no love for the child at all. She says "If it weren't for mirrors and my mother, I wouldn't have known I was ugly". What a truly horrible thought, that I think must make any parent think very carefully - what are we telling our children?
Patty is not without love though. She has been raised by a hired nanny who has sheltered this unwanted child as much as she possibly can, and fills the role of a mother far better than the shallow self absorbed woman who gave birth to her. Ruth is a strong and powerful woman, unbowed by the vile treatment she receives, and completely unappreciated by the adults in the family. She gives Patty not only love, but a sense of pride and determination as well.
Things change for Patty when a group of prisoners is brought into her father's store to buy hats as shelter from the oppressive summer sun of the deep south. Patty meets Anton, a German Prisoner, and although their exchange is brief, a few kind words and a smile have a lasting impact on a child who has been made to feel ugly, unwanted and useless.
When Patty comes across the same man a few weeks later, attempting to escape the POW camp - she instantly decides to hide him, bringing him food, clothing and providing him with a safe place to hide.
Anton in turn befriends the child, but there is never any indication of any romantic feelings towards her. It becomes obvious that the girl has a crush on him, especially after he risks his life to try to protect her. Anton is clearly horrified to be a witness to child abuse, and he is protective of the child, but never displays any romantic feelings of any kind.
I do try avoid any and all spoilers in a book, but I do think the following section will occur to the reader very quickly. I certainly guessed at this outcome when reading this as a child and would have come to that conclusion even faster as an adult. I think this fact is essential as what makes this book worth reading, but if you are planning to read this book, and would prefer no possible spoilers at all - please skip the following paragraph marked with ~'s :
Obviously, Anton can not remain hidden in Patty's hiding place forever. He must leave, but he leaves the girl with a gold ring displaying his family crest which he says is the most valuable thing he owns. He gives it to her because she is a person of value, and she must always remember that it was given to her out of love. This is part of the beauty of the story to me - this affirmation of a child's worth.
This sounds like the end of the story. It is not. It is only half way though. Troubles have just come home for Patty, and she will go through more hardships than most adults could face, but two things will give her strength - the ring and Ruth, who remains ever faithful and loving to the child she has raised and loved like one of her own.
As a child reading this, I have to admit - I did find the character of Anton very attractive. Just as Patty looks for signs of romantic interest in every kind act by Anton - so I too wanted to see this as romance. I identified very strongly with Patty. The teacher who gave me this to read said she did so because she felt I had something in common with the main character, and I imagine some of the themes brought up here are common to childhood. I enjoyed the story a great deal, in fact it was one of my very favourite books. I did like this enough to want to go back and read it again, but now, as an adult, it seems that I missed so much of this book with the first reading. The story is the same, but my perspective has changed, and that has changed the effect of the book on me.
As an adult reading this, it is easy to see into a child's world, and how that world can be a very lonely and even frightening place. Patty's desperate need to be accepted, to be loved is something many children go through, and like many children she feels defective or as if it is her fault that her parents never warm to her. Of course this book is fiction - but it mirrors the lives of many real children. Her willingness to risk everything, and devote herself completely to a man who should be her enemy simply because he had been kind to her should serve as warning to many parents. Children do need to know they are loved and accepted - the man in this book is kind and supportive, but if a vulnerable child like this were to be befriended by a man with ulterior motives - it is obvious that he could have seriously taken advantage of her.
There is something lovely in this book about the innocence of childhood as well. Patty is immediately able to overlook the fact that Anton should be her enemy. There is also a message in this, that we are all the same in many ways, regardless of race, creed or nationality.
Patty could easily have broken under the circumstances, or become cruel and heartless herself. As an adult, the character I like most of all in this book is Ruth. Her strength and courage set an example to the child, and I believe her love is what set Patty apart from many other children who grow up without love - and as result never really know how to love themselves. I think this is also a good reminder of how important a kind person can be to a child who is struggling. We should never let a chance to make a child feel valued and good pass - whether it is our child or not. When I say this is a love story - it is Ruth's selfless love for a child that strikes me the most in this book.
As a child the underlying thread of racism also had far less impact on me. As an adult the fact that such a strong and competent woman as Ruth, who clearly has a strong moral fiber her employers lack, is treated as inferior is grating. The fact that she is , in many ways powerless is more upsetting. This is not a book about racism, but much as it must have been woven into the lives of people in the time and place it is set - so it is woven into the story as well.
There is very little I can fault this book on. It is intense and moving and exceptionally believable for the most part. This is truly one of those books that transports you to another place and time. There is only one small section of the book, which I felt really took away from the overall quality of the writing. In one brief section, Ruth expresses shock that their are no coloured women in Germany? How do German women keep their homes clean? This is so out of keeping with the strong intelligent character of this book. Surely she knows Hitler isn't terribly fond of non Aryans, and white women are perfectly capable of raising their own children and keeping their own houses. Take that one passage out though, and this book would be flawless.
I would also note - I do consider this book acceptable for children - and it's unlikely a teacher would have brought me a book that wasn't acceptable for children. There is however one fairly graphic depiction of child abuse, as well as quite a lot of the more insidious emotional abuse that many children suffer. This isn't a poor me book, the abuse is secondary to the main story, but I do feel this may trigger memories or make unpleasant reading for some people. If this type of description upsets you, please avoid this book as it is so very believable I can't help but think the author was herself abused. I would recommend this book for ages 10+.
Also reviewed on ciao