Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

September 27th to October 2nd is Banned Book Week.  There are not too many books about World War II for children and young people that have been banned but there are three – Anne Frank:The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was challenged as recently as 2010, while  Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut and Summer of My German Summer by Bette Greene were among the top 100 banned/challenged books of 2000-2009.

I had never read Summer of My German Soldier before now, though I did get an in depth description of it when my niece read it in middle school. It is the story of 12 year old Patty Bergen, a Jewish girl living in Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Her father owns a small department store there, and is helped out by her mother. Patty and her younger sister, Sharon, are cared for by Ruth, their black housekeeper. Patty is a lonely girl, who is constantly criticized by her mother and mistreated and physically abused by her father. She receives three severe beatings by him in the course of the novel.

The story begins with the arrival of a trainload of German POWs, who are taken to a barracks outside of town to work in the fields. One day the prisoners are brought into the store to buy straw hats to wear while working. Patty is there and offers to help one of the prisoners buy some pencils, paper and a pencil sharpener. He tells her his name is Frederick Anton Reiker and she learns that he speaks flawless English because his mother was English and his father had studied in London. By the time the prisoners leave, Patty has developed a very serious crush on Anton.

Not long after this, on the day that eight German saboteurs* are arrested by the FBI, Patty is sitting in her hideout above the garage, looking out the window when she notices something moving outside. Recognizing it to be Anton, she goes running after him and brings him back to her hideout. She brings him food and, since it is summer vacation and her parents don’t want her to hang out at the store, she spends her time getting to know Anton better. He is gentle, intelligent and witty, and fulfils a need in Patty, treating her with respect and kindness. But one evening, when her father sees her speaking to Freddy Dowd, a slow, poor boy she has been told to stay away from, her father beats her, first with his fists and then his leather belt. Seeing this, Anton starts to run out of the garage to stop the beating, but Patty yells for him to go away so her father won’t see him. Ruth, watching the beating from the house, sees Anton and the next day she persuades Patty to tell her who he is. Patty explains the situation and Ruth, who is Patty’s only ally at home, has Anton come into the house to eat the breakfast she prepared for him. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Anton must leave, that things are going to get dangerous now that the FBI is looking for him, believing he is part of the ring of saboteurs caught earlier. Patty gives Anton a clean monogrammed shirt she had given to the father for Father’s Day, a gift he had tossed aside.  Before Anton leaves, he gives Patty a ring to remember him by, a meaningful ring which had been in his family for generations. And it is this shirt and ring that allows the FBI to connect Anton to Patty.

Summer of My German Soldier is a quintessential coming of age story that also manages to realistically capture the feeling of fear and anxiety that people felt during the war. It also portrays racism in its various forms, racism directed at African-Americans in the Jim Crow south, and the wartime hated that could so easily spring up against Jews, Germans and Asians. In one example, Patty describes the way a Chinese merchant’s store was vandalized and he was effectively run out of town because the people didn’t know the difference between Japanese and Chinese. Greene also brings to light the kind of hypocrisy that is sometimes found in people who should be free of the kind of behavior. When the townspeople learn that Patty has helped a German POW, it is the minister’s wife who spits out “Jew Nazi-lover” at Patty as she is being escorted out of town by the FBI.

This novel has also been challenged for being sexually explicit, something I seem to have missed, and for the language used in it. Both of these things seem to be standard fare of those who desire a book to be banned under the guise of protecting the young impressionable reader. Additionally, the ending has been criticized for being too pessimistic and unsuitable for young readers. I found the story to be both believable and understandable in part because of the ending, although at times Patty did get under my skin. The hardest thing for me to read were the severe beatings she was given by her father, with noticeable marks on her body and, clearly, it was something he did frequently.  I can only imagine how lonely and unloved Patty must have felt afterwards.  Yet, no one stood up for her, except in the end the housekeeper Ruth, even at the cost of her job.  It is always difficult to read about children being abused, in books and in reality.

All in all, however, I am glad I finally got around to reading Summer of My German Soldier, and would not recommend others wait this long.     

Summer of My German Soldier was an ALA Notable Book, a New York Times Book of the Year (1973) and National Book Award Finalist.

*The day was 27 June 1942 when eight German saboteurs were arrested. Four of them had arrived in U-boots on 13 June 1942 in Amagansett, Long Island and four arrived the same way on17 June 1942 in Ponte Verde, near Jacksonville, FL. They were carrying explosives and $150,000 for bribing people and their mission was to blow up military targets.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Smithsonian Museum Free Admission Saturday

Thanks to Jill at History for her post about the free admission for two people to one of the many Smithsonian Musuems about the country this Saturday, September 26th.  All you need to do is sign up at

I am going to be in Washington DC this weekend, so I thought I would take my 8 year old niece, a budding chef and already a good cook (under supervision) to see Julia Child's Kitchen at the National Museum of American History. 

So find a Smithsonian museum near you and have some free fun!


Monday, September 20, 2010

The Grand Mosque of Paris. A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews during the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeDaix

The Grand Mosque of Paris is a little known but important story, just like the The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square was; a book about people helping others in a time of great peril. The central theme of The Grand Mosque can be summed up in the Islamic hadith* and a Jewish proverb quoted by Ruelle and DeDaix:

“Save one life, and it is as if you’ve saved all of humanity.”
The Grand Mosque of Paris was opened in 1926 on land donated by the French government in tribute to the many Muslims of her North African colonies who fought and died for France in World War I. At the time, most of the mosque’s members were Kabyle Muslims, Berbers from Kabylia in Algeria. It is a large place with both religious and social areas, including living accommodations, so that many people can be within it’s walls at any given time. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940 and began their roundups of Jews for deportation, it did not take long for the rector of the mosque, Si Kaddour Bengharrit, to realize that the Muslim community could do something to help the Jews – they had both the space and the means to do this. And so the Muslims of the Grand Mosque began to rescue Jews, and within three months of the Nazi occupation of Paris, the rector and his congregation were suspected of and warned against helping anyone escape to safety.

The story is well done and well researched but the authors also write that attempts to verify much of what they found for this book were not terribly successful:
Writing about clandestine events that took place at a time of turmoil involving people who had an oral rather than a written tradition, and with many of the participants having now passed away, presents many difficulties.” (pg34)
Yet, there is enough evidence to prove that it happened and Ruell and DeDaix present the story in part by using examples of people who had been helped. One such person was Salim Halali, a Berber Jew from Algeria, studying in Paris to become a singer. Salim found refuge in the mosque and received a “Certificate of Conversion” from the rector. The rector even had a stonecutter called in to carve a false gravestone with Salim’s family name on it for authenticity. Although Salim remained at the mosque until the war was over, most of the people who received help did not stay as long. In fact, only those Jews who also looked North African were able to stay in the mosque for more than a few days, since it was easy for them to pass as Muslims. Those who did not look North African had to be guided out to safety as quickly as possible.

According to Ruell and DeDaix, the Muslims had a real advantage as far as the Nazis were concerned. Though the mosque was suspected of helping Jews, the Nazis didn’t target its members for it because they feared an uprising of Muslims in Northern Africa and the Germans were already fighting the Allies there. And on the occasions when the Nazis did show up to search the mosque, the members had various ways of delaying their entrance, giving the people inside time to hide. In addition, though the authors do not indicate whether or not they were actually sick or orphans, many of the Jewish children brought to the mosque were sent to Muslim clinics outside Paris to protect them from the Nazis. These clinics were run by a Tunisian Dr. named Ahmed Somia. There, they administered to the children as well as Allied pilots, parachutists and even spies who found themselves injured and trapped in France.

The Muslim helpers had many ways of doing what they needed to do in order to help the Jews. Ruell and DeDaix explain that as members of the French Resistance, the Kabyles could safely carry messages and instructions written in their native language which was difficult and understood only by other Kabyles. As businessmen, they were also able to sneak people into the mosque with the help of their deliverymen using a three-wheeled bicycle with a large bin in front. Once inside the mosque, the members could provide the escapees with whatever they needed until they could be secreted out through a complicated series of tunnels. These tunnels, sometimes compared to the American Underground Railroad, were the result of stones quarried underground for constructing the buildings in Paris centuries ago. The Jews would then be led through the tunnels to the River Seine and put on to barges. There, the Jews were hidden in the large barrels that were used for delivering wine to Paris.

The authors also did the illustrations for this book and they are simply lovely, providing a real sense of the story. The Grand Mosque is, in reality, a truly beautiful place and the illustrations capture much of the artistry of the North African craftsmen who built the mosque. The illustrations give the sense of an oasis of peace and calm and safety in a world gone mad.

This is a highly recommendable book, containing a lot in this interesting and touching information. I think it would be a wonderful addition to a class learning about the Holocaust. There is an excellent teacher’s guide provided by the publisher, Holiday House, for use with this book at

*A hadith is a saying attributed in some way to the Prophet Muhammad.

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by

Monday, September 13, 2010

Going Solo by Roald Dahl

September is Roald Dahl month and September 13th is Roald Dahl Day in honor of his birthday – he was born in Wales in 1916. For that reason, I have chosen to look at one of his autobiographical books, Going Solo, for Non-Fiction Monday.

Going Solo begins with Dahl traveling to East Africa to work for the Shell Oil Company in 1938 at the age of 22. It took two weeks to travel from London to Mombasa by boat and Dahl provides vivid, humorous descriptions of some of his fellow travelers, which he characterizes as “that peculiar Empire-building breed of Englishman who spends his whole life working in distant corners of British territory,” And they are a set of characters, for instance, the elderly Major and his wife who exercise every morning by running around the ship’s deck – stark naked. Or his roommate who sprinkles Epsom Salt on his shoulders everyday to look like he has dandruff in order to hide the fact that he wears a wig.

Dahl was stationed at a place called Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then called Tanganyika. He lived there with two other young Shell employees and their servants, but was also required to travel to Shell outposts, often for a month at a time. Dahl doesn’t go into any detail about his job, but he does about the people, the land and especially the animals he encountered.

I loved that life. We saw giraffe standing unafraid right beside the road, nibbling the tops of trees. We saw plenty of elephant and hippo and zebra and antelope and very occasionally a pride of lions. The only creatures I was frightened of were the snakes. (pg 26)
Dahl also provides amazing anecdotes about encounters with a lion and the dreaded killer mamba snakes he was so afraid of.

As soon as war was declared against Germany, Dahl was ordered to leave his job and became a temporary Army officer. His first order was to round up all the German civilians, mostly shopkeepers, in the area and put them in an internment camp, even though they had been doing friendly business with them all along. There was one ugly incident doing this, but in the end the task is accomplished, although the German women and children were allowed to return to their homes instead of the camp.

In November 1939, Dahl decided to join the Royal Air Force, traveling alone for 600 miles to enlist in Nairobi. Flight training went well and Dahl was assigned to the 80 Squadron in the Western Desert. Flying solo to reach them, he could not find a landing airstrip to refuel before nightfall and was forced to land his plane in the desert, where it hit a boulder and burst in flame. Dahl survived, but spent months in hospital recovering from his injuries. Once he was sufficiently recovered, he was sent to Greece where the 80 Squadron had relocated and discovered they were expected to defend against a very well equipped enemy, the Germans and the Vichy French, with only 15 one man Hurricane planes of their own. Given his descriptions of the air battles with Germans, it is amazing anyone survived, and actually, not many did including Dahl's good friend, David Coke. Dahl seems to have had great good luck all through his RAF days. He was transferred to Palestine after Greece was captured by the Germans in April 1941. One of the oddest stories he tells was of finding a group of German Jews, about 50 children and two adults in the middle of a secret landing strip in Haifa, who had actually helped to build the landing strip.

Altogether, Dahl flew sorties from April 1941 to June 1941 often as many as five times a day. He was invalided out of the RAF and sent back to England when he began to experience terrible headaches that caused him to blackout while flying. These headaches were the result of his old crash injuries.

I found Going Solo to be an oddly engaging book, pulled in from the start by Dahl’s wonderful descriptions of what was going on around him, first on the ship and then in Dar es Salaam and later in Kenya. Of course, the book was written in 1986, so one must always keep in mind that Dahl’s memories had forty years to marinate. Generally, I space out when I am confronted with detailed descriptions of military things because I don’t really understand that kind of stuff. However, I found Dahl’s explanations to be quite interesting and understandable without sounding condescending. Dahl loved photography and many of the black and white photos he took from this time in his life are interspersed throughout the book, as well as maps and bits of letters and telegrams.

Dahl originally wrote about his RAF experiences in a 1946 book called Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, which is also still available, but the stories are definitely not meant for young readers.

The official Roald Dahl website can be found at

This is the original book I found in the Hunter College Library and read.  There is a new reissue of it available now as shown.

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted today by

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Keep Smiling Through by Ann Rinaldi

Like all her historical fiction, Ann Rinaldi has written a novel that gives a very good picture of life in a particular era; in this case it is the home front in New Jersey during the spring of 1944. The title is taken from the second verse of a popular song (We’ll Meet Again) sung by Vera Lynn and ‘keep smiling through’ becomes the maxim by which the main character, 10 year old Kay Hennings, tries to live. But when her courage is tested, she discovers that it isn’t always easy to do this. Kay is the youngest in a family of two older sisters, two older brothers, a detached father and a self-centered, mean spirited pregnant stepmother the kids call Amazing Grace behind her back. She is a woman who “killed happiness in our house wherever it tried to grow.” (pg 2)

Kay’s test of courage begins when the housekeeper she is very attached to, Queenie, tells her that she will be leaving that night to live and work Brooklyn. Queenie tells Kay to ‘keep smilin’ through’ and things will be ok. But they aren’t. The next morning Kay is told to pick up some eggs after school from scary Mrs. Leudloff. Mrs. Leudloff is German and Martin and Tom, Kay’s brothers, are convinced that she is a spy and her dog is a Nazi dog, because she has been heard listening to a short wave radio.

Later, at school, Kay discovers that her best friend’s brother was lost at sea after his ship was torpedoed. Jen is now surrounded by the Golden Band, a group of the most popular girls who take Jen under their wing, even though they had previously considered Kay and Jen beneath them. In less than 24 hours, Kay has lost two friends, as well as her mittens and must now buy eggs from a German spy. But then Mrs. Leudloff is surprisingly nice to her and Kay likes her, which is good since Kay must buy the eggs from her throughout her lonely, otherwise friendless spring.

That summer, Amazing Grace’s parents come to stay with the family. Kay is happy they are coming. Nana, who is Austrian, and Grandpa, a German, are very good to the kids even though Grace treats them no better than she does anyone else.

One hot summer afternoon, Grandpa takes Kay to get ice cream from his friend Ernie. He tells her to stay at a picnic table and eat her ice cream until he returns and goes off to chat with Ernie. After a while, Kay goes to find him, and overhears Ernie and Grandpa talking about Hitler and the Third Reich. Then she sees Ernie give him a pamphlet from Germany. Before Grandpa can look at it, a group of men drive up. They shove Grandpa out of the way and go after Ernie, accusing him of being a Nazi and holding Bund rallies. When they hear Grandpa’s German accent, they turn on him, calling him a Hitler lover, pushing him to the ground and seriously injuring him. As they drive off, Kay memorizes the license plate on the car, then picks up and hides the pamphlet that Grandpa was holding.

This incident changes Kay’s life. After the men are caught, reporters would like interview Kay, but Amazing Grace wants to control what she tells them, afraid of what Kay may say about Grandpa. For her part, Kay is worried about whether or not she can be brave enough to do the right thing. Ultimately, Kay decides “I must do the right thing…Like Britt Reid. Or Superman. Or Betty Fairfield. I must fight for truth and justice and go against all the people who want to destroy America.” (pg 138)

Throughout the novel, popular radio programs are brought up in the context of patriotism, bravery and battling evil. Shows like Superman, The Lone Ranger, Hop Harrigan, The Shadow, The Green Hornet and Jack Armstrong are just a few of the radio programs children and adults faithfully listened to during the war, just as Kay and her family did. These larger than life heroes continually faced and battled evil and each time they were victorious. Throughout Keep Smiling Through, these are Kay’s role models, but she then learns that in real life “you can be good and do the right thing and sometimes it all goes bad for you anyway.” (pg 1)

This is a well researched novel with lots of small everyday details that help give the reader the flavor of the time, showing how everything in life was directed at inspiring patriotism and loyalty, as well as the importance of radio heroes and popular music as ways of dealing with war anxiety. Rinaldi has cleverly centered Kay’s dilemma on the continued covert activities of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, even though the Bund was outlawed in New Jersey in 1935. This was an interesting story; although at times I thought the story line became a little fuzzy in regards to the character of Amazing Grace. Nevertheless, it is definitely a worth while read.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Champion of Children: the story of Janusz Korczak by Tomek Bogacki

This is an interesting, inspiring book about a doctor who devoted his life to helping children.

Korczak was born in 1878 in Warsaw, Poland. Though his parents were well off for part of his childhood, Korczak was very aware of the poverty and suffering of other less fortunate children in Warsaw. When he was 11 years old, his father became ill and his family began to struggle because he could no longer work. Korczak tutored to help out and when he went off to university, he knew he wanted to devote his life to helping children as a doctor.

Soon Dr. Korczak was a well-known, well-respected writer of articles explaining his ideas about education and orphanages. When he was asked to be director of a new Jewish orphanage, Korczak jumped at the chance because “he wanted to do more than make children well, he wanted to change their lives.” (pg 10)

The orphanage was opened in 1912 and was very democratically run. For example, the children governed themselves, decided on punishments, and participated in discussions about problems that were encountered within the orphanage. But Korczak also believed children should have fun. He always told them stories, and played games with them. Every summer, the kids went to a camp in the countryside. Korczak also wrote and published books for children and adults, his most famous being King Matt the First.

When the Nazis invaded Poland and forced all Jews to live in the ghetto they had created, Korczak , his staff and his orphans were forced to live in a single crowded room. Life was difficult and the children became thin and sickly. Korczak would roam the streets of the ghetto, scrounging around for food, medical supplies and anything else they might be able to use.

On 6 August 1942, the Nazis ordered Korczak and the children to the train station, to be transported to Treblinka extermination camp. It has been written by many who witnessed the procession through the streets about the quiet dignified manner with which Korczak and his children conducted themselves. Though nothing could save them from their horrible fate, Korczak’s ideas about and success with children continue to be inspirational. As Bogacki notes at the end to the story:

In honor of Korczak’s work, the United Nations declared 1979 the International Year of the Child. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, created in 1989, was strongly influenced by Korczak’s theories.
Bogacki both wrote and illustrated this beautiful picture book depicting the life of Janusz Korczak. He was influenced by stories his grandmother had told him about this remarkable doctor.

The Champion of Children: the Story of Janusz Korczak received the following honors:

2009 National Jewish Book Award – Finalist
2010 Sydney Taylor Notable Books for Older Readers

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by

Saturday, September 4, 2010

From the Archives #1: Cherry Ames, Army Nurse by Helen Wells

I was looking through my bookcases where I keep all my old books and came across some old Cherry Ames. I loved these stories when I read them. The early ones were especially meaningful to me because my mother had been a nurse and had taken care of wounded soldiers and veterans before she married – just like Cherry.

Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Cherry Ames, Senior Nurse follows Cherry through her three years of nurses training at Spencer Hospital. In the first book, she decides to become a nurse because “she wanted to do vital work, work that the world urgently needs.” (pg 5) In Senior Nurse, an Army nurse comes to her graduation to make a plea to the graduates: “You are needed, desperately needed! If we are to save our men out there fighting for us – if we are to even win this war – you nurses must help. Are you ready to serve?” (pg 215) Naturally, Cherry, along with her entire class, is ready to sign up, thus forming the Spencer Unit.

Cherry Ames, Army Nurse begins with Cherry receiving her orders to report for active training. Soon the Spencer Unit is off to Fort Herold, NJ. Here the nurses, and the Spencer doctors who also volunteered, are placed under the command of Captain Paul Endicott. Endicott takes an immediate dislike to Cherry and her friends Dr. Lex Upham, her boyfriend, and Dr. Joeseph Fortune, an old family friend and a researcher.

At Fort Herold, the nurses perform hospital duty and receive 4 weeks basic training under the direction of Sergeant Deake. Deake is an Army loving male “who regarded all women here as intruders, nuisances and nitwits…” (pg53) So when Cherry calls him Lovey and the name sticks, he has even more reason to resent them. Of course, by the end of basic, Deake turned out to be a real old softy, despite the pranks the nurses pull on him.

During basic, Cherry also meets her corpsmen Bunce Smith. Good natured Bunce can’t do enough for Cherry and even tries to come to her rescue when she leaves bivouac during a simulated battle to help a small injured boy on a farm not far away. When she returns to camp, she finds, to her surprise, that it is gone. Bunce finds her, but so does Captain Endicott and trouble naturally ensues. Endicott doesn’t like Bunce any more than he does Cherry.

Ultimately, Spencer Unit is sent to Panama City, Central America to work in the Army hospital there. Tensions continue to grow between Lex Upham, Joe Fortune, Cherry, Bunce and Paul Endicott. Dr Fortune, who has been working on a malaria serum, is refused permission to test it out. But when Cherry and Bunce find an old Indian ill with what looks like a rare form of malaria in an old house she is exploring, she manages to get him treated with Dr. Fortune’s serum, though without proper permission.  Cherry and Bunce are put on probation, thanks to Endicott – a demotion for both of them and they must now prove themselves once again. The story, however, leads to a very dramatic conclusion..

When I started to reread Cherry Ames, Army Nurse, I expected to roll my eyes and mutter “How corny!” But I was pleasantly surprised. The book held up well after all these years. And best of all, Cherry is not perfect; she gets into trouble, breaks rules for the greater good, has doubts about her abilities as a nurse and about joining the army.  I like that.

Of course, the first 6 books in this series were patent patriotic propaganda pieces aimed at convincing girls to think about army nursing as a career.   I wonder how many girls were influenced by the Cherry Ames books to go into nursing during the war. And although there were other wartime nursing series written for girls, Cherry Ames seems to have outlasted all of them and have even been reissued recently. Perhaps they held up because Helen Wells went to a great deal of trouble researching the Cherry Ames stories so they would sound authentic to her wartime readers. In fact, almost 60,000 nurses served in the Army Nurse Corps the way Cherry and her friends did. The four week training program they went through under Deake’s supervision was authorized in July 1943 to quickly familiarize nurses with army methods and approximately 27,000 graduated from it. To compensate for the shortage of nurses this left on the home front, the Cadet Nurse Corps was formed. In Army Nurse one of Cherry's friends joins the Cadets in her junior year. (pg 31) This was a great scholarship program that trained about 124,000 young women to be nurses. In exchange for free tuition, books, uniforms, room and board plus some spending money, these young women would have to serve as military or civilian nurses until the end of the war. This is how my mom became a nurse

Two examples of recruitment posters for army and cadet nurses:

Green, Ruzzie.. You are needed now : join the Army Nurse Corps : apply at your Red Cross recruiting station.. UNT Digital Library. Accessed September 4, 2010.

Whitcomb, Jon.. Be a cadet nurse : the girl with a future.. [Washington, D.C.]. UNT Digital Library. Accessed September 4, 2010.

A picture of my mom, on the right, with a fellow nurse.  The young man was an injured soldier.  The picture was taken outside the hospital where she worked, not where she trained