American author of juvenile and young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Greene's career through 2004. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 2.
The author of several young adult and middle-school novels for children, Greene helped to usher the realism movement into twentieth-century children's literature with the release of her groundbreaking novel, Summer of My German Soldier (1973). While Greene's canon consists only of seven books written over a thirty-five year career, she has nonetheless established herself as a versatile and thought-provoking writer equally at home with comedy and drama. Demonstrating an unpredictable streak that has seen her alternate between the emotionally somber novels for adolescents for which she is best known and her lighter series of "Philip Hall" middle school books, Greene has made a career of defying both critical expectations and the boundaries of children's literature. Her teen-oriented novels, particularly Summer of My German Soldier and The Drowning of Stephan Jones (1991), stepped outside the boundaries of normative juvenile fiction with controversial and frank depictions of child abuse, homosexuality, prejudice, and death—subjects that have made her the regular target of censors. An outspoken defender of free speech, homosexuality, and other potentially divisive civil causes, Greene and her realist writing methodology have challenged long-standing conventions in young adult literature, offering candid and emotive presentations of difficult materials.
The setting and mood of Greene's children's novels are biographically-inspired, reflective of her own childhood in the rural American South. Though born on June 28, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee, to Arthur and Sadie Evensky, Greene spent the bulk of her early childhood in the rural community of Parkin, Arkansas, a small town where her family ran the town's country store. As the daughter of the only Jewish family in town, Greene often felt alienated as a girl because of her faith, an emotional isolation that eventually led her to become a born-again Christian as a young woman, much to the disappointment of her parents, though she would later return to her Judaism. With her parents forced to work long hours in the family's general store, Greene spent much of her early childhood in the company of the family's African-American maid, a woman named Ruth who would later serve as the basis for a sympathetically portrayed maid of the same name in Summer of My German Soldier. When Greene was thirteen, her family moved back to Memphis, where they had been attending synagogue, allowing her to graduate from the more ethnically diverse Memphis Central High School in 1952. After graduation, her collegiate goals took to her to both the University of Alabama and Memphis State University, though ultimately she took a degree from neither. Having long harbored writing ambitions, despite the lack of encouragement she received from teachers due to poor grades and spelling problems, she nonetheless sold her first story about a local fire to a Memphis newspaper at the age of nine. Her incipient journalism career continued throughout high school and college, and she left college prior to graduation to become a full-time reporter with the Memphis Bureau of the United Press International. In 1955, after living abroad in Paris for a year, she moved to New York City to attend Columbia University's writing program and became a public information officer with the American Red Cross's New York branch. She met her future husband, physician Donald Greene, in 1959 and together they moved to Boston where she found further work in public information at the Boston State Psychiatric Hospital. After the birth of her first child, Carla, Greene left the public sector to stay at home with her new family, an opportunity that allowed her to return to her childhood dreams of writing. Initially limiting herself to penning short stories and magazine articles, she soon found herself loosely reframing her adolescent roots in Arkansas as the setting for Summer of My German Soldier, a World War II novel about a girl's illicit relationship with a German prisoner of war being held at a camp just outside of town. While Greene believed in the quality of her work, finding a publisher proved difficult. After eighteen rejections over a two year period, the novel was finally published by Dial Press in 1973 to good reviews and strong sales. Remarkably, the book earned, among its many honors, a National Book Award nomination, a prestigious recognition for a first time novelist. Her second book, Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe (1974), radically different in tone and target audience, cemented her reputation with a Newbery Honor Award. While only five further books have followed—with only one since 1991—Greene remains an active public speaker. Settled in Brookline, Massachusetts with her husband, she is the mother of two children and grandmother to two grandchildren.
While her "Philip Hall" series of juvenile novels remains a fan favorite and earned her the Newbery Honor Award, Greene is best known for her young adult novels. Flush with elements from her own Arkansas childhood—including a loyal and loving maid named Ruth—Summer of My German Soldier was further inspired by her grandmother, a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant who lost a brother in World War II. The story is an evocative examination of the surprising ways in which prejudice can be manifest in World War II-era small town America. Set in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, the book introduces twelve-year-old Patty Bergen, who is—like the girl from her creator's past—a lonely and isolated Jewish girl in a predominately Christian town. Her parents further complicate Patty's life; her father, Harry, is violently abusive, while her mother is controlling and unsympathetic. Jenkinsville is also the home to a POW camp for German soldiers, whose population includes a sensitive young pacifist named Anton Reiker, a prisoner whom Patty meets in her father's dry goods store. When Patty finds an escaped Anton in a barn one night, she discovers him to be a kindred soul; the son of a professor and a medical school student, he defies her expectations and preconceived notions of how a German soldier should act. Deciding to keep his secret, she becomes a protector of sorts, helping him to maintain his freedom. However, when Anton sees Harry savagely beating Patty one night, his presence is revealed when he defends his friend from further abuse. Events spiral downward for both Anton and Patty—Anton is killed trying to escape, and Patty is accused of treason. Too young to be legally convicted as a traitor, she is nonetheless sentenced to reform school for her crimes, where only Ruth, who was fired for assisting Patty, visits her. In Greene's sequel, Morning Is a Long Time Coming (1978), the story picks up five years later, when Patty uses money given to her by her loving grandparents to visit Europe so that she may seek out Anton's mother to find resolution from his painful loss. The stories combine to form an authentic narrative investigating the painful intersection of abuse, isolation, and prejudice. Greene creates a subtle irony in the powerful relationship formed between Patty and Anton, a Jew and German soldier respectively; even as their friendship evolves into a source of strength and joy for both, despite their inherent cultural differences, their innocent relationship simultaneously exposes hidden prejudices within the broader community. After Anton's death, Patty is labeled a traitor by her neighbors and cast as a turncoat by the Jewish community for providing assistance to a German. But, most surprisingly, the horrible cruelty of Patty's father is revealed to be the result of self-loathing born from the anti-Semitic prejudices of his neighbors. A book of contrasts, Greene offers subtle comparisons between the Jewish Harry and Adolf Hitler, as well as between the totalitarian German state and the segregated South.
Similarly, The Drowning of Stephan Jones suggests surprising foundations for the prejudices that underpin the story's exploration of homophobia. Based in part upon a real incident, Greene conducted 485 interviews with people associated with hate crimes involving homosexuality, including victims and perpetrators, as well as friends, family members, and acquaintances of those involved. The result tells the story of a gay couple, Frank Montgomery and Stephan Jones, who move to rural Parson Springs, Arkansas, to open an antiques store. The pair faces enormous prejudice from segments of the community, particularly Andy Harris, the teen son of the local hardware store owner. His harassment of the couple escalates dramatically until prom night, when Andy and his friends run into Stephan in nearby Ratchetville. After verbally accosting him, Andy proceeds to beat and strip Stephan before throwing him into the river, where he drowns. The story is told from the point of view of Andy's would-be girlfriend, Carla Wayland, who finds herself conflicted by her strong feelings for Andy, her horror about his crimes, and the continued arguments of her liberal mother. Over the course of the book, Greene reveals that Andy too is a victim; regularly beaten by his father, he is also further subjected to the fiery, anti-gay sermons of his fundamentalist church. After a trial finds Andy innocent, Stephan's partner, Frank, gains his revenge by suggestively revealing to a phalanx of camera crews that the contents of Andy's threatening letters may have in fact been "love letters," before burning them and any proof to the contrary. While the book lacks the positive emotional undercurrents of Summer of My German Soldier that invigorate the characterizations of Anton and Patty, The Drowning of Stephan Jones nonetheless offers a compelling portrait of the roots of homophobia. As such, the book resounds with Greene's thematic realism. Replete with contextual and real-world situations, Greene offers persuasive portraits of alienation, injustice, and the cultural foundations of prejudice in its myriad forms. Among the first authors to effectively utilize realism in children's literature, Greene presents three-dimensional protagonists struggling with dark realities atypical to the genre, but effectively presented nonetheless.
While Greene has proven to be a critical favorite, as evidenced by her Newbery Honor Award for Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, her nomination by the National Book Award panel for Summer of My German Soldier, and her Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children's Book Writers, she has also drawn the regular ire of censors who believe her books to be inappropriate for adolescent readers. For example, in Clinton, Arkansas, after the superintendent of schools requested that Summer of My German Soldier be removed from school libraries, despite never having read the book, students were ultimately given permission to cross out any aspects of the book they found offensive. While Greene's canon has remained controversial, her books have remained critically popular, with The Drowning of Stephan Jones even finding use as bibliotherapy in the Eckert Camps for sexually-abused children. Summer of My German Soldier has emerged as a classic adolescent novel for its anti-didactic examinations of prejudice and unexpected friendship. Lyman B. Hagen has called the novel a "complex and emotionally wrenching novel [that] explores Patty's struggle for approval, affection, and identity … the intense personal relationship between the main characters transcends hate and destruction, and illustrates Greene's main concern: that the universal values of love, trust, and respect cross national and religious boundaries." While The Drowning of Stephan Jones has not earned the same level of critical regard, as one of the first juvenile novels to consider homosexual themes, it has nevertheless become recognized as a groundbreaking work. Lynne Alvine has termed the novel "an important book because it has the potential to develop sensitivity in young readers who might otherwise become one of the characters in the book, participating in such violence or standing by, watching it in silence." Still, the book's place within children's literature has remained in flux, largely for the text's negative tone that may inhibit its positive intentions. Patty Campbell has suggested that while "Greene must be praised for speaking out so resolutely against bigotry and hate in this book … None of the characters are admirable or sympathetic, even those that are clearly meant to be." Despite these criticisms, Greene remains an innovative figure of children's literature for her vivid and pioneering portraits of the relative powers of prejudice and strength within American culture.
Summer of My German Soldier (young adult novel) 1973
Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe [illustrations by Charles Lilly] (juvenile novel) 1974
Morning Is a Long Time Coming (young adult novel) 1978
Get on Out of Here, Philip Hall (juvenile novel) 1981
Them That Glitter and Them That Don't (young adult novel) 1983
The Drowning of Stephan Jones (young adult novel) 1991
I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall! [illustrations by Leonard Jenkins] (juvenile novel) 2004
Bette Greene (essay date winter 1994)
SOURCE: Greene, Bette. "America's Designated Victims: Our Creative Young." In Two Decades of The ALAN Review, edited by Patricia P. Kelly and Robert C. Small, Jr., pp. 101-04. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
[In the following essay, originally printed in the winter 1994 issue of The ALAN Review, Greene discusses her personal experiences of seeing the impact of homophobia upon teens after her release of The Drowning of Stephan Jones.]
After my novel The Drowning of Stephan Jones (inspired by a true crime, the drowning of a gay man by a teenager on a "religious" rampage) was published, something very strange happened. At first it seemed strange; while later on, it became almost predictable. Every time I spoke before an assembly of students, there would always be at least one boy who shyly requested permission to speak with me "in private." And what that boy and more than a half a hundred like him have now told me was so private that they dared not speak of it to their parents—no, not even to their closest friends.
From Berryville, Arkansas, to Manhasset, New York, the stories were all different, but yet they were all variations on the same disturbing theme: Our most creative young people are being tormented in every college, high school, junior high school, and, yes, grammar school in every state, city, and town in this nation. The reason for this always emotional and oftentimes physical oppression is that, try as they may, some boys simply cannot cram themselves into the mold befitting America's macho machine.
Although much of this force is generated by the fear of homosexuality, it isn't at all necessary to be homosexual to be persecuted as one of America's "designated victims." A designated victim is a boy, usually slender, usually thoughtful, who would prefer creating beauty to crushing bones. Because they might enjoy gymnastics, fencing, acting, writing, or band practice rather than football practice, these boys are called "faggots" and that's just for openers.
While it's true that the great majority of these young men, some sniffing back tears, who confided in me insisted that they weren't gay, yet each of them had had his manhood questioned. And they had it persistently and savagely questioned. Was it their fault, I wondered, that not one of these young victims had a face that one would expect to find amid the pages of Sports Illustrated? Is that really what we as a great people on the cusp of the twenty-first century are needing? A nation of linebackers?
I would never have even guessed at the size and dimension of the "designated victim" problem if I had not written a book that opened a window onto the violence against homosexuals. But it has been people's extraordinary response to that book that has extended my window into an ever-widening vista.
In his introduction of me at the ALAN Workshop, Ted Fabiano, a young English teacher from Kansas City, flatly stated that homophobia affected everyone in his school. He broke it down: most obviously are those "designated victims," some gay, most not. Then there are those that verbally and physically oppress the victims, followed by those that egg on the oppressors of the "designated victims." And last there is the largest group of all: those silent observers who watch the people who egg on the people who brutalize the "designated victims." Forty years ago, a high school friend of mine with the improbable name of James Crowe committed suicide. What I did not—could not—understand then, I understand now. Jim Crowe was one of Central High School's "designated victims." In the best high school in Memphis, he was the best—the very best of the best! He had a fine baritone voice, was a gifted actor and a caring friend, and possessed a mind that reflected lights like crystal chandeliers at a royal wedding.
Oh, sure, I knew that he was "teased" because he had no interest whatsoever in sports, at least not in team sports. He much preferred his Saturday morning acting job on Memphis' premier station, WREC. That was his dream of one day acting, singing, and, perhaps, directing professionally. And any schoolboy anywhere can tell you that that's suspect. Very, very suspect! Some of the jocks, and would-be jocks, mocked Jim by nicknaming him "Sister Boy," which, incidentally, was the same name they hung on the suffering prep student in Robert Anderson's masterful play, Tea and Sympathy. In Anderson's play, however, the boy is "saved" by his physical union with Deborah Kerr, the headmaster's beautiful wife.
In "real life," I did not save Jim Crowe. Unlike Deborah Kerr, I lacked an understanding of the true depth and dimension of Jim's despair. In my eyes, he seemed to soar so far beyond his schoolmates that I chose to believe the pretty myth that a giant couldn't be brought down by a bunch of intellectual and moral pygmies.
If this society's constant preaching-railing-cruelty against homosexuality weren't bad enough (and, God knows, it is bad enough), it is hurting a great many more than the estimated 10 percent of the population that are gay and lesbian. It hurt Jim Crowe, and it's also hurting untold numbers of young males whose only crime is that they're suffering from what I've come to label the three S's: Sensitive, Shy, and Slender. Jim Dodge, a New Hampshire police chief, suggested to me that there's a fourth S: Studious.
A psychiatrist who has achieved fame treating both sports heroes and literary lights once estimated that there were as many homosexuals in the American Football League as there are in the Authors League of America. But who would believe that? Myths die hard; and the prettier the myth, the harder it dies.
While researching The Drowning of Stephan Jones, I conducted over four hundred interviews during a twenty-month period in eight states, and I came to the sad conclusion that a lot of preachers, especially televangelists, are manufacturing hate from their pulpits. When, for example, I'd ask someone who had committed a crime against a gay why he did it, his answers were often shocking. Oftentimes the now-convicted felon would quote the Bible, his minister, and one or more of the nationally known televangelists to justify his violence. Reverend Jerry Falwell's words about homosexuality were, for example, once quoted to me in great detail by a teenager who had the week before opened up the skull of a man on his way to buy microwave popcorn at a convenience store.
When I'd follow a young criminal's thread back to his local pastor, the pastor, like all the clergymen I interviewed, would fervently proclaim, "Oh, no, I've never preached hatred. I only preach love. We hate the sin, but we love the sinner." For a long time, I thought about what so many ministers had told me about making that neat little dividing line between the sin and the sinner, and wondered if it really were possible.
To find out, I devised a psychodrama that I played with twenty-six people who had at least two advantages over the felons: They were at least fifteen years older, and they all had a reputation of being loving. With my Parker pen at the ready, I'd ask the participant to pretend that my favorite pen was a knife that I had just slid between his ribs. Then I'd ask my profusely bleeding victim if he hated me or the violence that I had done to him. It was no contest. Twenty-five had no trouble shouting out variations of, "No, I'd hate you, Bette."
A talk-show host on whose show I appeared labeled my book, "More than controversial, it's explosive!" While I may have been the first to write a popular novel about this shocking source of hate against gays and lesbians, I am most certainly not the first to be aware of it. Far from it: Practically every thoughtful person seems to be all too aware that this is happening—and it's happening now.
Of course, the clergy are far from alone in their hysterical homophobia with its broad-based consequences. But it is the voices of the clergy that resonate beyond the churchyard, past the villages, through the towns, and into all of our cities across this nation. If the "spiritual" voices are heard spewing hate and divisiveness, then where goeth our standards of decency?
In March of 1991, Boston was ready to explode over the issue of whether twenty-five gay and lesbian Irish Americans would be allowed to march in our city's Saint Patrick's Day Parade. Both The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe called to ask me what I think should be done.
Usually, I don't have answers, never mind instant answers, that I'm so certain of. But this time, I knew precisely what should be done: "Respectfully call upon the one person in all of New England who has the prestige, the power, and the authority to lead us Bostonians into a circle of brotherhood," I begged. "Bernard Cardinal Law could say ‘no more violence’ and make it stick." The Archdiocese of Boston came roaring back with five adjectives, all negative. They pointed out that The Drowning of Stephan Jones was "merely anecdotal and non-scientific" and that the author herself was "ludicrous, bizarre, and irresponsible."
To understand the oppression of the gays and lesbians by the religious community, I believe that it's instructive to look back on this 300th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials. During that period, many people (including fifteen children) were put to death because they were, according to the parsons and priests, dancing with the devil.
The trials were stopped when the laity of the late sixteenth century rose up against the clergy chanting, "No more burnings!" Cotton Mather, the greatest preacher of the day, resisted, calling the laity "Devils or people who are talking with the devil." Ultimately, with the help of a Massachusetts governor, the clerics backed off, and, I'm pleased to announce, not once since, not in all these years, has another witch been found in the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts!
I believe that it's way past time that we, the laity of the late twentieth century, should take our cues from the courageous laity of 1692. It took great courage, as well as great revulsion, for mere laymen to finally rise up against men who claimed to be God's earthly representatives. Well, we, the thinking laity of today, have already experienced the same revulsion experienced by our forefathers.
It is neither too early nor too late to do what they did: confront those un-lit minds, no matter how exalted be their station. Back in 1692, the people's questions to the parsons and the priests were, "Haven't we hung enough witches?" Today our updated question to these men of God is, "Haven't we brutalized and buried enough gays? Haven't we brutalized and buried enough of our creative young?"
Let us say "no" to oppression in the name of political expediency. Let us say "no" to oppression in the name of patriotism, and, for God's sake, let us say "no" to oppression in the name of religion.
Bette Greene and Lynne Alvine (interview date winter 1994)
SOURCE: Greene, Bette, and Lynne Alvine. "Understanding Adolescent Homophobia: An Interview with Bette Greene." In Two Decades of The ALAN Review, edited by Patricia P. Kelly and Robert C. Small, Jr., pp. 105-12. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
[In the following interview, originally printed in the winter 1994 issue of The ALAN Review, Greene discusses the research process behind writing The Drowning of Stephan Jones and how her investigation of homophobia informed her creation of its composite characters.]
I sat in the ALAN Workshop audience in the large hotel ballroom in Louisville, Kentucky. The speaker was describing "society's designated victim," a type of young boy who is sensitive, shy, slender and, often, studious.
I had not yet read her latest novel when I first heard Bette Greene speak about The Drowning of Stephan Jones. I picked it up one night a couple of weeks after returning from NCTE in Louisville. From the title, I knew Stephan Jones would die. I figured I'd just check out who drowned him, how they did it, and see if it was a book I wanted to include in the readings for my adolescent literature class at the university.
I should have known better than to begin one of Bette Greene's novels right before going to bed. I read into the night, knowing that Stephan Jones would die and knowing, too, that his brutalizers would not be punished, could not be punished, if the book were to have a credible ending.
I had heard the sensitivity and compassion in the author's voice as she talked about the young men for whom Stephan Jones was a prototype. I had heard the anger when she spoke of their brutalizers. I had not understood why she felt so strongly about such victimization. Why had she taken on such a potentially explosive topic?
A few months later, when I learned that Bette Greene was to be the keynote speaker at an English Festival for high school students sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English (WPCTE), I arranged for time to talk with her about her research for The Drowning of Stephan Jones.
We sat over room-service coffee at the Pittsburgh Ramada Inn. It had been several years since I had been first drawn into the story of Patty and Anton in Summer of My German Soldier. It had been twenty years since this woman across the table from me had first published that novel about intolerance and persecution in Arkansas during World War II.
I had enjoyed spending the afternoon with Bette Greene and those six hundred high school students at the English Festival. I was excited to have this opportunity to talk with her about her more recent work. She appeared to be tired, but I could tell she had been energized by the interaction with so many young people.
I asked Bette to talk about why she had written a novel about a gay couple and adolescent homophobia. I wanted to know something of her connection to this story. Her initial response sounded as though it might have been about Summer of My German Soldier. She spoke slowly, as if seeing her thoughts across the Pittsburgh skyline:
I am bothered by injustice towards other people. The etiology of my hating hate probably has to do with two women whom I loved very much. One was our housekeeper Ruth, who was African American in a time and place where the Ku Klux Klan rode. In spite of this, Ruth was not a subservient person. For example, she would never have called you, "Miz Lynne." She would have called you "Miss Alvine." She protected her dignity at a time when it was neither popular or even safe to do so.
The other woman was my grandmother, who also lived at that time in Wynne, Arkansas. She had emigrated from Lithuania where her brother was a superintendent of schools in a mid-sized city during WWII. Even though the Germans were murdering all intellectuals and Jews, my grandmother believed her brother, who was both a Jew and an intellectual, would be safe because he was so loved and respected in the community. I re- member during the war my grandmother going every day to the Wynne Post Office waiting for a letter that would never come.
When I commented on the obvious influence of Ruth and her grandmother in Summer of My German Soldier, Bette explained:
Oh, absolutely…. German Soldier was more of my own personal violation.The Drowning of Stephan Jones is personal in that I feel so personally violated by it, and yet it's not directly my story. I am straight and have been married to the same man for thirty-four years, but I don't understand brutalizing somebody because they are physically attracted to people in ways that I may not be. The first thing we do to destroy another human being is verbal. I destroy you by calling you things that take your personhood away from you. And then I may or may not do [physical] violence. I don't like verbal violence. I don't like things that people call people in this society: "Fat," "Skinny," "Four-eyes," whatever. I am offended by it. I'm deeply offended by injustice.
I turned our conversation toward her research for the book, asking about the interviews she had alluded to in the ALAN speech. Her subjects had been not only the victims and their victimizers. She had also talked with persons associated with the perpetrators of the crimes:
I did about 485 interviews in eight states—California, Washington, Tennessee, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine. I avoided anyone who stole from the victim because then you don't know if it's really a hate crime or a crime for gain. I talked to everybody who was available—their teachers, their Uncle Joe, their pastors, their coaches. Another criterion was that the brutalizers had to be generally considered "good boys," people who had never been in trouble before. I tried to isolate it as much as I could. I tried to find out where does the hate come from? Not all the boys were religious, but they all had been affected by religion. They knew it was OK to do violence to gay people because they thought it said so in the Bible.
Once, just to get a reaction, I suggested that perhaps there was a better target. "Old people," I ventured, "they're much better targets than gay people. Even if they manage to strike you back, it's not all that hard. Chances are they can't run away. So go for the old people." The young men were horrified, insulted that I would suggest that they would do that. They said, "I'd never hurt an old person." So, somewhere out there through our religion and our culture they have learned that it is acceptable to hurt homosexuals, but it is not acceptable to hurt their elders.
The trial lawyers help to make the situation worse. Invariably they don't have a real defense, so the attorney creates one: "The lone gay man ‘came on’ to this bunch of boys. The defendants were provoked in some way, sexually." I don't believe it! I've talked to a lot of people in the gay community, and they say to me, "Bette, we know what the world is out there. We don't come on to people unless there is first a subtle courtship back and forth. We don't come on to a football team, for God's sakes. We're interested in romance, not suicide."
Had I done in every man who threw a pass at me when I was young, I'll tell you that there would have been any number of bodies floating down the Mississippi, the Seine, the East River, and later, the Charles.
Bette had implied that many of the abusers she had interviewed were quite young. I asked what rationale they had given for their actions against gays. Why did they believe that brutalizing gays was okay?
They quote the Bible. They quote their local ministers. I've talked with many of the ministers. They quote to me the Sodom and Gomorrah story. I may be the most expert person on Sodom and Gomorrah at this hotel, because I have studied it more than you want to know. It's not about homosexuality. It is about inhospitality. In the days before the Ramada Inn, when people were traveling, you had to take them in or they would be eaten by the wild animals or die of starvation. The man sent the daughter out instead of the guest. It has to do with gang rape. It has to do with inhospitality, but it has nothing to do with homosexuality. Jesus in all of his preaching never mentioned homosexuality—not once. The Ten Commandments are notably silent on it although they do talk about adultery. Preachers don't generally preach "We hate adulterers!" or half of the people in the congregation would walk out. If they're in a church, homosexuals are well closeted. So where is the issue? Who are they preaching to? Too many members of our clergy are preaching hatred. They send people out to kill the sin, but since folks don't know where the sin is, they kill the "sinner."
Earlier that day in her speech, Bette had held up a USA Today newspaper and had pointed to four frontpage stories where religious fundamentalists were involved in killings. She referred to those examples as we talked:
Look at today's newspaper. A physician is gunned down. He's got three bullets in his back. The event in Waco, Texas, is another one. The [bombing of the] World Trade Center. All of this evil was done by religious fundamentalists. One was a Muslim fundamentalist. What does the Christian fundamentalist say? They say they're taking a collection up, not for Dr. Gunn, not for Dr. Gunn's two children who won't have a father, not for the grieving widow, but—you guessed it—for the murderer.
Any religious fundamental group (including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) is a potential danger. The problem is that enlightened people are afraid to stand up and say that these people who spout pieties can also be terrorists and murderers. We're afraid to say it because they claim to be doing the work of God. None of us is so secure that we can speak against such a close buddy of God. There is no greater blasphemy in the world than these people who claim to be doing God's work.
I asked her to say more about her sense of how the world climate had informed her work on The Drowning of Stephan Jones :
Homophobia is endemic in America. The air we breathe is filled with homophobia. A great amount of it is coming from fundamental Christianity. I've gone to the churches of the young men who were the victimizers. On the tube I see the evergrinning Pat Robertson. I watch the Trinity Network and the Eternal Word Network. What spews forth is a river of hate. Nobody can be more in error than when they insist that they, and they alone, speak for God.
Once again, our conversation turned toward those two men in the book who loved each other and who were brutalized for that love. I asked Bette to talk about Frank Montgomery and Stephan Jones and their attacker, Andy Harris.
Stephan Jones was a composite character of many gay men, as was Frank Montgomery. I guess Frank Montgomery was, to me, a sort of Montgomery Clift character. They were both amalgamations of a number of people. [Andy Harris and his friends] picked on Stephan Jones because he was not a fighter. So who better to pick on? Andy Harris was just like so many of the young men, only a little bit more clean-cut. Andy was not a full person because he had picked up the stereotypes of his father, who used to batter him. The father would call him girl names and humiliate Andy. So, of course, Andy had a lot to prove. With the harassment of Stephan Jones, Andy could prove that he was really a man. That's what he wanted from Stephan. If he vanquished Stephan Jones, wouldn't that prove, once and for all, that he was a man?
It sounded as if she was suggesting that Andy Harris was confused about his own sexuality. I was curious as to whether she had found any evidence that the people who are the most active at the brutalizing are themselves troubled by their own unclear orientation. I asked her directly:
No doubt. Here's one thing [the brutalizers] did, Lynne, which was fascinating. I am a grandmother. As I talked with them, they often tried to convince me how macho they are. Doesn't that grab you as being strange? Why would I be interested in how macho they are? I'm guessing that they're trying to prove something more to themselves than to me. In this society, violence is too often a shortcut to masculinity. Our coaches are involved. Our coaches brutalize the kids by yelling epithets at them when they fumble the ball, epithets that wound by telling these boys that they're not men, they're girls.
I asked about the characterizations of Carla Wayland and Carla's mother Judith, the librarian, who had stood up for intellectual freedom in the small Arkansas community where the novel is set:
Carla was a lot like my daughter. I suppose there's something of me in Judith, and there is a lot of Judith in so many librarians that I have known. Librarians are a peculiar people. They don't make more money by getting you to take a book out and exercise your mind, yet they go through all of this trouble to get you to do so. Judith liked to feel useful and to provide an important service. Intellectual freedom was very important to her. This is one of the big issues in the book. It is okay to have your intellectual freedom impinged upon if it's—say, for a good cause? For a religious cause? Judith didn't think so. Of course Carla was a high school student who wanted to be in the mainstream. She was proud of her mother, but she was also embarrassed by her mother. So Carla was torn by admiration, ambivalence, and love.
Clearly, Judith Wayland did not fit into the community where Bette Greene had set the novel. I asked her about her choices for that community.
It's set near Fayetteville, Arkansas, in a mountain village that's noted for the diverse types of people who come there; it welcomes "nuts and berries." Parson Springs, Arkansas, proudly proclaims that this is a place where misfits fit. So, Frank and Stephan thought that they would fit in. And they did fit in. It was in the more typical neighboring town a few miles away that they ran into harassment. That community, like much of the rural South, too often snuffs out the intellectual curiosity because what they teach is that you're not supposed to think; you're supposed to believe, to go by faith. In growing up there, whatever I was told, I believed. Or, at least, I struggled hard trying to believe whatever it is that "nice" people are programmed to believe. The teaching was that you go by faith alone. And I really tried it. I mean literally. I never, for example, studied for anything. I spent my time praying that I would pass third-grade math. I prayed that I would just get a good grade. How do you deal with somebody like that?
The topics of gays in the military, homophobia, and gay and lesbian relationships had been everywhere in the press, on every talk show, in every sitcom, on every news program. I asked Bette Greene about her sense of how the American public was responding to the gay rights in the military issue and/or this unprecedented focus on gay and lesbian lifestyles:
I think the American people are going to get better about it. The polls are showing they're getting better. I would want to understand how it's going to work in the military. I'm sure there are going to be some difficult adjustments, but I would like to see it.
I suggested to her that Americans will get better on the issue only if the issue is talked about, only if the taboo is lifted. Many people who consider themselves to be very liberal, who would never make a racist remark, who would never make a sexist remark, will still tell a joke about a gay person. It seems gays and lesbians are the one group that it's still okay to pick on—sort of the last frontier of insensitivity and intolerance. Bette agreed:
It is the last frontier. I think that it is a matter of being sensitized to it. If you tell a joke, it's to dehumanize. That's why I object to it. That's the first line in any battle. You dehumanize. I object to homosexual jokes. But it's not being gay that's the problem. The problem is being in the closet, because closets kill. Barney Frank and Gerry Studds in the Congress say, "I'm gay, and I'm okay." They do their job, and they still get reelected. But if Barney Frank or Gerry Studds were in the closet, then they could be blackmailed; they're half people. It's the J. Edgar Hoover syndrome. The former FBI head, according to a new book, was a man who was blackmailed by the Mafia because he was in the closet. I don't have objection to how people express their love if it doesn't hurt anybody else, but closets do hurt. I think being open takes a great deal of courage.
I believed The Drowning of Stephan Jones to be an important book. I knew the book had been received positively. When a high school girl came up to Bette earlier that day and said, "I loved your book," I asked her "What book?" I was not surprised that she said " … Stephan Jones. " I had seen students press forward to purchase copies of the book after her talk at the Festival. I wondered, however, what Bette Greene's perspective on the response was:
Everyone who has come to me or who has written to me has been very positive. Everyone calls it a "powerful book," a book that is "memorable." Everyone I talk to who has read the book seems to have given it to somebody else to read. The only had responses that I've received have been from people who have not read the book. When people read the book as opposed to hearing about it, [the response] is positive. I received one letter from a Methodist woman who said, "Your book gave me a whole new way of looking at gay people. Thank you for stretching the mind and the heart of a 64-year-old country woman."
Last Christmas my husband brought home four books his secretary wanted signed. When she took The Drowning of Stephan Jones home, he thought she would be very upset. I sort of forgot all about it. I talked to her two weeks ago and she said, "Mrs. Greene, I want to tell you, [the book] changed my way of seeing things. Now I see homosexuals just like people a lot like you and me. I cried when Stephan Jones died."
As Bette shared her sense of the positive response from the readers of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, I began to be hopeful of its potential. I said to her, "If the sixty-four-year-olds can have that response, perhaps the young people can have a similar response. Perhaps it will help them ground themselves in a view that will stand up a little better against the barrage of hatred that is spewing from the religious groups":
The designated victim is in every school in America. Ted Fabiano, who introduced me at NCTE, gave a very thoughtful presentation of why the book is important. He said that at his school in Kansas City, homophobia affects everyone. He pointed out that the core was the 10 to 20 percent of the kids who were thoughtful students, who would prefer to go to band practice than to football practice. They might very well be seen at academic competitions. They like to write or to act. They like things that are not considered "macho." This 10 to 20 percent of the students (some are gay, some are straight) are persecuted by an equal number who are the tormenters, a group of boys who want to show how virile they all are. The next group is the eggers-on. What they do is to act as cheerleaders to the tormentors. Then, there is the last group, the largest group of all: these are the onlookers who seek out a vantage point from which to stand and watch.
I thought again of The Drowning of Stephan Jones. "These are the ‘Carla Waylands’ of every school. After hearing your speech, perhaps the ‘Carla Waylands’ in the auditorium today will now have a different response when faced with situations where they must make a choice about how they will respond to the hatred":
Again and again, I see a lot of physical courage, but so little moral courage. I see young people who will do all kinds of physical things to save people they don't know, but they will do little or nothing to save a friend if they have to stand up and say "Leave this person alone." We have to point out to them that real men are not the men who are doing violence. We can from a position of authority make statements about our personal beliefs. With our silence, we create a vacuum. What they need [for] us adults to say is, "It's wrong. It's wrong to bother people, to hurt people who are minding their own business." We need to have very understanding people who are going to be our leaders. I think it's important to talk about justice and injustice with them. There were 650 kids here today who listened as I spoke for justice, and there wasn't one snicker. No, not one.
My questions were answered. Bette Greene had written The Drowning of Stephan Jones because she believes that young people in every generation must confront the issues of intolerance and injustice toward others. She had come to Pittsburgh to raise those issues with high school students. Often, however, adults don't have an opportunity to take a stand when a young person is being victimized. A code of silence operates to protect the brutalizers in most schools. Those who would censor this book perpetuate that code of silence. The Drowning of Stephan Jones is an important book because it has the potential to develop sensitivity in young readers who might otherwise become one of the characters in the book, participating in such violence or standing by, watching it in silence. It also has the potential to reach out to society's "designated victims" who, in reading The Drowning of Stephan Jones, may come to understand that they are not alone.
Bette Greene and Suby Wallace (interview date March-April 2001)
SOURCE: Greene, Bette, and Suby Wallace. "An Author's Perspective on Censorship and Selection." Library Talk 14, no. 2 (March-April 2001): 12-14.
[In the following interview, Greene discusses her reaction to the repeated efforts to censor her books, particularly The Summer of My German Soldier and The Drowning of Stephan Jones.]
Editor's Note: In this article, Suby Wallace, media specialist at Derby Ridge Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri, interviews well-known author Bette Greene to get an author's perspective on censorship and the role of the media specialist in promoting the freedom to read. Greene is the author of many works for children and young adults, including The Summer of My German Soldier.* * *
[Wallace]: What is censorship and when is censorship merely selecting?
[Greene]: If a person is acting on the belief that one particular political or economic system, one particular culture, or one particular religion is superior to all others, then that is censorship. The operative phrase here is acting upon. If one is aware of one's particular bent (and we all have them), then one must take great care to give equal weight to ideas that are different from his—ideas that he might not even like.
Can you share a personal experience with censorship?
My first (although certainly not my last) encounter with censorship came when I was a very junior reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. My assignment was to cover a second-tier evangelist who promised "Miracles of Healing Under the Tent." Although I was naturally skeptical, I was certainly not closed to the possibility that this fashion plate of an evangelist could, indeed, coax God to bring forth a miracle or two.
As far as I could tell, the wildly exuberant people who jumped out of their wheelchairs and went prancing across the stage were authentic. It was only at the end of the services when I examined those now abandoned wheelchairs and saw that they were all rented from the same Memphis medical supply company that my original doubts seemed justified.
So in my newspaper article, I wrote about all the people claiming healing and carefully quoted the words of the preacher. But I also wrote, without explanation or editorializing, the one line about the rented wheelchairs.
On the following morning, my article appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal precisely as I had written it—all, that is, expect the one offending line that had been banished from print. I did somehow find the courage to ask the editor why, and his answer was quite simple. He did not want to mess with people's faith.
Without question or quibble, the editor was a good and decent man, but he was wrong. He should, on the basis of truth and truth alone, have allowed people to make up their own minds. Because of that one censored line, how many people continued to depend on the faith healer's touch instead of the X-ray machine? How many people threw hard-to-come-by dollars into the preacher's wicker basket instead of spending them on medicines?
Although the editor's sentiments may have been noble, hard truths may have been far nobler, in the end, than soft lies. Consider the noble sentiments of Joseph Paul Goebbel's words spoken at the infamous May 10, 1933, Nazi book-burning: "These flames … light up a new era … Spirits are awakening, and oh, century, it is a joy to live!"
Have you spoken with other authors about censorship?
Once I asked the queen of romance novels, Barbara Cartland, if she also crashed heads with censors, and she looked at me rather oddly before answering, "Why on earth, Bette, would anybody ever want to censor me?" Of course! Barbara Cartland was right. Her books aren't about ideas, but about heaving bosoms.
So what books are being censored? It surprises people to learn that some of them are our greatest books, our national treasures. A few examples: Of Mice And Men, Slaughterhouse Five, Hamlet, Native Son, James and the Giant Peach, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, A Wrinkle in Time, Ulysses, Brave New World, As I Lay Dying, All the King's Men, Little Red Riding Hood, Sons and Lovers, Catcher In the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. And that's just for starters.
All of these books create an emotional experience for the reader, and that is what the mind-controllers fear most. D. H. Lawrence, who knew as much about censorship as anybody, explained it best: "The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything, because a new experience displaces so many old experiences … The world doesn't fear a new idea, it can pigeon-hole any idea. But what it can't do is pigeon-hole a real new experience."
Bette, tell us about the recent controversy in Clinton, Arkansas, overSummer of My German Soldier ?
Must I? It's too bizarre to be believable.
Tell us anyway, please.
In Clinton, Arkansas, the new superintendent of schools, who was proud of the fact he had never read my novel, demanded that Summer of My German Soldier be removed from the curriculum. This was on the basis of the curse words spewed forth by an inflamed father when he learns that his daughter has shielded an escaped German prisoner of war. The teachers, the librarians, and even some members of the Clinton school board held firm. Most of the citizens rallied for Summer of My German Soldier, so the book survived. The bizarre part, though, is that a compromise of sorts has been reached. The students now have been given the right to deface my work by inking out anything they don't like.
What would you call this, Bette? Censorship or defacement?
How would you help school librarians understand censorship in the context of their responsibility to their students? Censorship versus selection?
Over the 28 years since Summer of My German Soldier was published, there have been a number of challenges by people who objected to the book. I have heard a lot about these challenges, but one thing that I have never heard (No, not ever!) is a complainant who has actually bothered to read the book.
And so, if I were a librarian, and an irate parent demanded that I take Summer of My German Soldier or any other offending book off my shelves, I would do the following: I'd gamble on the proposition that those who don't read also don't write. Soooo, I'd ask them to follow a certain written procedure, explaining precisely what they find offensive about the book.
The complaining person might whine that he hasn't time or that she's not going to read "a dirty book," but the librarian should be nice, be patient, be respectful, and never, never be helpful. Remind the person that:
- You have read the book and did not find it dirty.
- You have reviews backing up your protection of the book.
- You are unable to write a complaint about a book that you have no complaint about. Besides that, it isn't your job.
- The complainant's letter, if there is one, should be reviewed before an already existing committee.
- Ask the complainant if he can suggest an alternative book that will (in the case of Summer of My German Soldier, for example) demonstrate an explosion of suprapatriotism and anti-Semitism in a small Arkansas town during World War II.
- If the complainer is making angry sounds in your school library about a book in question, you might want to suggest that she come to the school to help her student with a selection.
The American Library Association says that there are three key points to remember when responding to a challenge. These points are so very simple that they are often overlooked:
- Libraries provide ideas and information across the spectrum of social and political views.
- Libraries are one of our great democratic institutions. They provide freedom of choice for all people.
- Parents are responsible for supervising their own children's library use.
Bette, that may not be realistic in a school library setting where students always come to the library without their parents. Do you think a librarian should assume some responsibility for the parent who's not there to supervise choices?
I believe that parents have the right (and even the duty, if they have concerns) to bother to come to the school library to help their child with selections. It's the librarian's job to choose books, thoughtful books, that explore what it means to be alive. The joys and sorrows, the strengths and triumphs of being human.
I don't think you've answered my question. Would you allow students to read books, for example, that weren't age-appropriate?
Suby, I strongly suspect that you, like me, grew up detesting age-appropriate books.
A quick example. My novel, The Drowning of Stephan Jones, is not considered appropriate for elementary school, and yet boys as young as eight or nine are being taunted and tormented with gay epithets. The Drowning of Stephan Jones allows the young to understand on an emotional level the tragedy of gay-bashing. The Eckert Camps, which treat sex-abused children, used The Drowning of Stephan Jones as bibliotherapy.
Bette, would you comment on why so many people continue to readSummer of My German Soldier in spite of what the censors say or do?
Every year I receive letters from people all over the world, and if these letters have one overriding theme, I would have to say it is this: The Summer of My German Soldier tells of victory over hate. It tells of a love that transcends race. A love that transcends national boundaries. And, yes, a love that has even transcended death.
1. Bette Greene's letter to the president of the Clinton, Arkansas, Board of Education protesting the censorship of The Summer of My German Soldier was also censored. It can be read at <www.bettegreene.com>.
Summer of My German Soldier, Dial, 1973
Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe (illustrated by Charles Lilly), Dial, 1974.
Morning Is a Long Time Coming (sequel to Summer of My German Soldier), Dial, 1978.
Get on Out of Here, Philip Hall, Dial, 1981.
Them That Glitter and Them That Don't, Knopf, 1983.
The Drowning of Stephan Jones, Bantam, 1991.
SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER (1973)
Osayimwense Osa (essay date December 1983)
SOURCE: Osa, Osayimwense. "Adolescent Girls' Need for Love in Two Cultures—Nigeria and the United States." English Journal 72, no. 8 (December 1983): 35-7.
[In the following essay, Osa studies how two works of juvenile literature, Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price and Greene's The Summer of My German Soldier, approach issues of female adolescent development in two very different cultures, particularly with regards to first love.]
The teacher's major goal is to guide the selection of books and to help adolescents read literature as human experience—not to teach a fixed number of books, a smattering of bibliographical data, or a miscellaneous collection of historical fact. Such information may support and extend but can never supplant the reader's perception of experiences communicated by the author.
—Walter Loban, Margaret Ryan, and James Squire, Teaching Language and Literature, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1961, p. 436)
In the canon of literature, one meets good novels, mediocrities, and worse, but it is the significant and well-written ones irrespective of cultural milieu that are worth the reading time of adolescents. Good literature is one of the few places left in modern life where the uniqueness of the individual is celebrated while at the same time common threads that bind people together are revealed (Donelson and Nilsen, 1980, p. 403). Research into the fundamental uniformity or difference in adolescent development in various societies, especially in literature, is rare but worthwhile. It is on this premise that this article will focus on one junior novel from the United States and one from Nigeria—Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price set in pre-independence Nigeria and Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier set in the United States during World War II. Although probably neither Buchi Emecheta nor Bette Greene knew the other's work, the thematic similarity is obvious.
The protagonists of both novels are girls in their early adolescence. Aku-nna, a Nigerian in Emecheta's The Bride Price, is thirteen at the beginning of the story, and Patty Bergen, a Jew in Greene's Summer of My German Soldier, is twelve. Both Aku-nna and Patty long for love and company and from this common desperate longing for love or companionship, the novels get their strengths. John E. Horrocks (1976) contends that:
When parental domination is harsh, unusual, or irregular, severe reactions by the adolescent are likely to follow. This becomes particularly true when the parents' attitude is overly protective or overly rejectant.
This contention applies to the plights of Aku-nna and Patty Bergen in their relationships with their parents or relations.
At thirteen, Aku-nna loses her father, Ezekiel Odia, and comes under the guardianship of her selfish uncle, Okonkwo, who regards her as an asset or commodity to fetch him enough bride price to help him become an obi (an Ibo chief in Nigeria) and receive the highly priced Eze title in Ibuza. Her selfish uncle, Okonkwo, inherits her mother, Ma Blackie, and soon impregnates her. Ma Blackie in turn steadily envelopes herself in the politics of Okonkwo's polygamous home. Subsequently she virtually neglects her daughter, Aku-nna, who in turn begins to feel the pinch of loneliness.
She had lost her father. Her mother was literally lost to her, so deeply was Ma engulfed in the affairs of Okonkwo's household; it was difficult sometimes to remember that she had been married to Aku-nna's father. Her brother was too young, too spoiled to be any consolation to her…. It came to Aku-nna clearly now that she was completely alone.
In desperation she falls in love with Chike, an African social outcast, "OSU."
Like Aku-nna, Patty Bergen experiences a feeling of loneliness. Her father does not want her to play with Freddy Dowd, one of the neighborhood children. She longs to join the company of Edna Louise, Juanita Henkins, Mary Sue Joiner, and Donna Rhodes going to a Christian gathering at the Baptist Training Camp in the Ozarks, but her Jewish mother prevents her. Her passionate appeal to her mother only falls on her mother's deaf ears.
I asked my mother if I promised (cross my heart) not to sing those songs and only to pretend to listen when they talked about Him. "After all," I pleaded, "Jesus isn't contagious." But she said, "No—It's only for Baptists."
Her mother's action intensifies Patty's loneliness. Jenkinsville, Arkansas, to Patty Bergen, is a "flat and fried bit of earth." Patty feels her life is sterile: "There was nobody to talk to and nothing to do" (p. 49). It is in this barren atmosphere that Patty meets Anton, a German prisoner of war, in her father's store, instantly develops an intense love for him, and later takes care of him after his escape. But how can one imagine any close relationship between a Jewish girl and a German soldier during World War II? Similarly how can one expect any close relationship between a freeborn girl like Aku-nna and a descendant of an OSU (outcast dedicated mainly by Ibo tribe of Nigeria to some African gods) like Chike?
Both Aku-nna and Patty desperately want company to satisfy their common need—self-worth. Their common desperation overrides custom and traditional val- ues, and they battle the prevailing mores of their respective societies. Like Patty in Summer of My German Soldier who falls in love with an enemy, Aku-nna in The Bride Price is equally starved for affection and falls deeply in love with an OSU descendant who according to Ibuza society is not free to mix with freeborns. Anton in Summer of My German Soldier and Chike in The Bride Price are not looked on favorably in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, and Ibuza, but Patty and Aku-nna find that these social outcasts provide the love and care which they need. At fifteen, Aku-nna elopes with Chike.
However, the actions of Aku-nna and Patty are not without consequences. Aku-nna dies in her first childbirth, and sheltering Anton is the beginning of shattering experiences for Patty. Too young to be prosecuted under the "Treason Act" of the American government, Patty is still sent to the Arkansas Reformatory for Girls.
Regardless of the somewhat bitter consequences of their actions, Aku-nna and Patty learn to develop a sustaining faith in life which subsequently helps them to overcome problems. Aku-nna's gloom in a sterile Ibuza gives way to happiness in the company of Chike, and even at the moment of her death at childbirth, she is satisfied at having a brief but pleasant taste of love. She is truly a happy lover in death:
I told you that I would not keep our love a secret. Now with our little girl, everybody will know. They will all know how passionately we love each other. Out love will never die…. Let us call her Joy too, the same name we gave to the bed on which she was conceived.
Similarly, lonely and awkward Patty experiences a surge of spirit in her relationship with Anton. Her initials "P. B." which Anton uses for her assume a rich significance precisely because they are used by someone who really cares. Patty's relationship with Anton helps her to appreciate herself as a person.
"P. B." he called me, and my initials took on a strength and beauty that never before was there. And now that I had of my own free will broken faith with my father and my country, I felt like a good and worthy person.
Patty attaches emotional significance to Anton's ring which he gave her, and this ring unleashes a flood of emotion which makes Patty realize that her relationship with her Jewish parents may not be completely hopeless.
I brought his ring to my lips barely believing it. He did love me … and maybe one day my mother and father will too.
Both Aku-nna and Patty are developed in considerable depth, and unlike a welter of paperthin adolescent characters featured in many junior novels, they emerge as rounded characters. Both The Bride Price and Summer of My German Soldier reveal the mind and character of two teen-age girls—a Nigerian and an American—who because of their common desperate need for love and companionship go against age-old custom and practices and experience pain in the process. The successful characterizations of Aku-nna and Patty enhance the unity of The Bride Price and Summer of My German Soldier.
Despite the vast Atlantic which separates Nigeria and the United States, these two sympathetic and touching novels, written with vivacity and deftness, reveal that young adolescent girls in both cultures have a common need for love. Such books introduce and inspire children from a variety of backgrounds to an awareness, understanding, and appreciation of cultures other than theirs, and mutual understanding and appreciation of each other's culture is vital to harmonious world relationships. If teachers can pique adolescents toward thinking along these lines early in life, rather than leaving them to figure it out late in adulthood, they will have succeeded in laying the foundation for a lasting world peace.
Carrier, Warren and Kenneth Oliver (eds). Guide to World Literature. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE, 1980.
Donelson, Kenneth L. and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1980.
Emecheta, Buchi. The Bride Price. London: Fontana/Collins, 1976.
Greene, Bette. Summer of My German Soldier. New York: Dial, 1973.
Horrocks, John E. The Psychology of Adolescence, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Loban, Walter, Margaret Ryan, and James R. Squire. Teaching Language and Literature, 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.
Lyman B. Hagen (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Hagen, Lyman B. "Summer of My German Soldier." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for YoungAdults, Volume 3, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 1298-1303. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1990.
[In the following essay, Hagen studies the dichotomies inherent in Summer of My German Soldier's relationship between a Jewish American girl and her Nazi-soldier friend, whom she comes to protect and who protects her in turn.]
About the Author
Bette Greene was born Bette Evensky on June 28, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee. A few years later, her family moved to Parkin, Arkansas, located just beyond the Tennessee-Arkansas border, where she attended elementary school. Her father, a merchant, operated a traditional country store in Parkin during World War II.
When Greene was thirteen years old her family returned to the Memphis area. She graduated from Memphis Central High School in 1952 and went to France, where she attended the Alliance Française in Paris. Later she attended several other universities in the United States: Memphis State University, the University of Alabama, Columbia, and Harvard. While at Memphis State, Greene worked for the school newspaper, as well as the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Hebrew Watchman. She became a full-time reporter for the Commercial Appeal from 1950 to 1952 and was affiliated with the Memphis bureau of the United Press from 1953 to 1954. Greene served as public information officer for the American Red Cross in Memphis from 1958 to 1959 and for the Boston State Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts from 1959 to 1961. She married Donald Sumner Greene, a physician, on June 14, 1959. They have two children, Carla and Jordan Joshua, and they live in Brookline, Massachusetts.
After publishing several short stories and newspaper and magazine articles, Greene turned to novel writing. Her first published novel, Summer of My German Soldier, is autobiographical, with material borrowed from her childhood days in Arkansas. It won several awards including a New York Times Outstanding Book award, an American Library Association Notable Book citation, and a Golden Kite Society children's book award, all in 1973. Summer of My German Soldier was also nominated for the National Book Award in 1974.
Summer of My German Soldier deals with an important period in American history, the armed conflict between Germany and America in World War II. Prisoner-of-war camps were established in many American towns to incarcerate captured German soldiers. Summer of My German Soldier describes how the citizens of an imaginary town react to the prisoner-of-war camps located in their community.
Patty Bergen, the twelve-year-old central character, finds growing up painful. Tension within her family compounds her anxiety and her low self-esteem. Abused and all but rejected by her callous parents, Patty befriends a peace-loving escaped German prisoner of war, Anton Reiker. Patty helps Anton hide from the authorities, and the two develop a caring, trusting relationship. What makes this relationship unusual is that Patty is Jewish and Anton is a former Nazi. Both, however, disregard these affiliations when they are together. Each seeks to escape from a violent, oppressive environment, and in each other, Patty and Anton find sources of warmth and comfort. A complex and emotionally wrenching novel, Summer of My German Soldier explores Patty's struggle for approval, affection, and identity.
The action takes place during the early 1940s in the fictional Jenkinsville, Arkansas, an eastern Arkansas town located in the heart of the Bible Belt. It is typical of the towns where the U.S. Army set up prisoner-of-war camps in World War II. The incongruity of a prisoner-of-war camp being located in a sleepy Arkansas town sets up the novel's central plot twist: Anton Reiker, a former member of the German Army escapes from the Jenkinsville prisoner-of-war camp and is assisted by a twelve-year-old Jewish girl. A Jew befriending a Nazi, whose party plotted the wholesale destruction of Jewish people, seems outrageous and highly unlikely. But the intense personal relationship between the main characters transcends hate and destruction, and illustrates Greene's main concern: that the universal values of love, trust, and respect cross national and religious boundaries.
Themes and Characters
The cast of characters in Summer of My German Soldier includes a variety of vivid personalities. Patty Bergen, the central character, is a twelve-year-old who perceives herself as plain and out-spoken and thus "living with a disadvantage." Although frequently rebuffed when she tries to express love to her parents, she doggedly devises stories and scenarios designed to win their lasting affection. Her father brutally beats her, and her mother ridicules her appearance and behavior, but Patty too often blames herself for their abuse, rationalizing that if only she were prettier or more talented, her parents would love her the way they do her younger sister, Sharon. Patty's father considers Sharon—a cute, pampered little girl—the next Shirley Temple.
Patty's first-person narration of the story reveals her wit, imagination, and intelligence. Her favorite pastime is reading the dictionary, and she seriously applies herself to a study of language. Patty, demands precision of meaning: "When I read a book," she says, "I want to understand precisely what it is the writer is saying, not just almost but precisely." After meeting Charlene Madlee, a newspaper reporter who encourages her interest in writing, Patty aspires to a career in journalism.
Harry Bergen, Patty's father, puts running his dry goods store ahead of caring for his children. He is portrayed as a monstrously cruel man, but Greene hints that his violent behavior is the result of deep insecurities and psychological instability. Patty's mother, Pearl, is depicted as a cold, controlled, and consistently unsympathetic character.
Anton Reiker, the prisoner and the son of a German professor, serves as a counterpoint to Patty's father. Where Mr. Bergen is brutal and sadistic, Anton is sensitive and understanding. Unlike Mr. Bergen, Anton, who was a medical student before the war, accepts "plain" Patty as "a person of value." With Anton, a former soldier for an army that kills Jews, Patty ironically finds someone who can comfort her, someone who considers her important. Anton even risks his life for Patty, coming to her defense during a particularly savage beating by her father. During World War II, many Americans fiercely hated the Germans and refused to consider them as individuals. Anton, who does not approve of Hitler and who is a kind, caring person, is the victim of social prejudice in Jenkinsville.
Ruth, the Bergens' maid, is loving, loyal, and constant like Anton. When Patty befriends Anton, Ruth assists her, and when Patty is incarcerated at the Arkansas Reformatory for Girls, Ruth is her only visitor. She teaches Patty to like and respect herself. For her love and loyalty, however, Ruth loses her job, another of Greene's comments on injustice. Ruth lives in Nigger Bottom, the black neighborhood in the segregated town of Jenkinsville. In addition to suffering the effects of generations of racial persecution, Ruth also bears the anxiety of knowing that her only son, Robert, whom she has painstakingly prepared for college, is now a conscripted soldier, fighting overseas. Her strong faith in God and her compassion for others help her endure these trials.
Greene sets her story about a girl's coming of age in a violent family against a backdrop of social oppression and world war. Her book explores these layers of conflict and weaves them into a tightly unified story that focuses on Patty's struggle to accept herself as a worthwhile person.
Although Anton and Patty seem to be extremely dissimilar—he is a good-looking, confident former Nazi soldier who has led a privileged, cultured life; she is a plain, insecure, Jewish girl from a small-town, abusive family—Greene structures her story around the parallels between them. Greene likens the cruelty and injustice Patty experiences at the hands of her father to the pain suffered by those—such as Anton and his father—forced to bend to Hitler's will. Anton articulates this similarity when he asks Patty, "Would your father's cruelty cause him to crush weak neighboring states? Or would the Führer's cruelty cause him to beat his own daughter? Doesn't it seem to you that they both need to inflict pain?" Both Anton and Patty are prisoners seeking escape from this cruelty, seeking a chance to rise above distinctions of race, to be individuals interacting compassionately with one another. But Anton dies in his final attempt at freedom, and Patty is sentenced to a reformatory as punishment for assisting him.
Despite Anton's death and Patty's incarceration, Greene shows that Patty has changed as a result of her encounter with Anton. In a powerful, metaphorical passage, Greene conveys Patty's sense of hope and determination at the end of the novel. As Patty watches Ruth leave the reformatory after a visit, she experiences sudden panic, "like watching my very own life raft floating away towards the open sea." But Patty soon realizes that she has the strength to control her own future; she remarks, "maybe that's the only thing life rafts are supposed to do. Taking the shipwrecked, not exactly to land, but only in view of land, the final mile being theirs alone to swim."
Because the novel is about prejudice and family relations, it might raise provocative or painful observations that readers recognize in their own lives. Patty, who is extremely attractive as a person but considered an outcast by her family, turns to an "enemy" for acceptance and is punished by society for helping someone she loves. The moral questions posed by this dilemma will raise contemporary questions of right and wrong. An equally strong theme is the hypocrisy of the townspeople who, while outraged that the Nazis are persecuting the Jews, practice segregation.
Rosalie Benoit Weaver (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Weaver, Rosalie Benoit. "Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier: The War within the Human Heart." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 409-13. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
[In the following essay, Weaver examines the critical issues—such as anti-Semitism, violence, and dark portrayals of small town bigotry—that have made Greene's Summer of My German Soldier a controversial work.]
As a Jewish girl growing up in a predominantly Christian fundamentalist small Southern town during and immediately after the years of World War II, Bette Greene is able to draw on her unique childhood experience in her fiction. One major theme in her work, the ugly effect that fear and intolerance of difference can wreak on human lives, pervades her first and most well-known novel, Summer of My German Soldier. In this novel Greene effectively and creatively transfers the hatred and anti-Semitism of World War II Europe to the small, Southern town where her main character lives.
Greene depicts the growing friendship between Patty Bergen, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl living in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, and Anton, a young German escapee from a POW camp outside of town. By bringing the reality of World War II to the postwar small-town South, Greene highlights the effects of racial and religious bigotry within the United States, within a small Southern town, within the family of Patty Bergen, and ultimately within Patty herself. Greene skillfully sets World War II, a war waged for racial, religious, and political dominance, as the backdrop to the war waged within Patty for love and acceptance.
The novel opens with the townspeople turning out to watch the arrival of a trainload of Nazi prisoners of war, young German soldiers, whose appearance strikes Patty as neither threatening nor shameful: "the only thing I sensed was a kind of relief at finally having arrived at their destination" (3). Nevertheless, it soon becomes evident that both Patty and Anton (one labeled Jewish and one a Nazi) are seen as outsiders, and they both struggle to escape the fear and hatred generated by their perceived difference.
Perhaps it is this fear of difference that causes some readers of Bette Greene's novel to see it as too disturbing for its young adult audience. Various criticisms of the novel take exception to Greene's treatment of domestic violence in her graphic depiction of the brutal beatings Patty takes at the hands of a father who cannot love her or himself. Other critics see anti-Semitism in Greene's contrast of the dark figure of the Jewish father against the dignity and goodness of the young German POW. Another view is that Greene is too hard on the social mores of small towns in the Bible Belt. Like Patty, Greene challenges the status quo by questioning the injustice of long-held beliefs and social conventions. Although Patty pays a large price for her questioning, in the end she transforms her self-hatred into a self-awareness that gives her the courage to move beyond the limits set by her town and her family, and to continue speaking out against injustice.
The opening line of the novel reveals the extreme pressure Patty feels to fit in and be pleasing in the eyes of others: "When I saw the crowd gathering at the train station, I worried what President Roosevelt would think" (1). Patty worries that her townspeople's public display of curiosity about the German prisoners of war might be seen as a danger to national security and ultimately as unpatriotic. She is quick to defend her community, "[w]e're as patriotic as anybody" (1). In this first scene, Greene introduces the general sense of patriotism that is often called on to cover up the realities of intolerance and hatred. As the novel progresses, Greene slowly unravels this widespread notion to reveal what lies beneath. When Patty reports to her family's black housekeeper, Ruth, that she has been watching the arrival of the prisoners of war, Ruth sees through the convention of patriotism to the truth about war: "Well I don't care nothing about no wars and no medals, I just care about my boy coming back safe" (6). For Ruth, the patriotic message that war is honorable and glorious rings false. The truth is that her son, who fights to defend freedom, is treated unjustly by his own country, discriminated against at home, and segregated from whites in the army. From the start, Greene challenges her readers to dig beneath the surface of conventional beliefs to find the real truth.
This challenge continues throughout the novel but not in a "preachy," didactic way; rather, Bette Greene dramatizes without comment, human conflict which, in turn, evokes reader response. From this initial reaction, adolescent and postadolescent readers can then begin to examine their own preconceived attitudes and feelings, and often gain new insights into the mysteries of the human heart. One such mystery is that of child abuse. Her father's anger and violence toward Patty are deeply disturbing to readers:
At his temple a vein was pulsating like a neon sign…. Only one foot advanced before a hand tore across my face, sending me into total blackness. But then against the blackness came a brilliant explosion of Fourth-of-July stars…. The pain was almost tolerable when a second blow crashed against my cheek, continuing down with deflection force to my shoulder…. Knees came unbuckled. I gave myself to the sidewalk. Between blows I knew I could withstand anything he could give out, but once they came, I knew I couldn't.
This explosion of hatred, so graphically described, evokes from Greene's readers intense feelings: anger and disgust. In their initial reaction to the father's cruelty, readers often label him as evil, while they see Anton as all-good. Greene will not allow such easy answers. While Anton equates Patty's father to Hitler, "Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty," he admits that he has no right to judge anyone because of his role in the Nazi army, which he describes as "two years of being as inconspicuous a coward as possible" (119).
Bette Greene instinctively knows what all the best young adult writers have learned: that the move from adolescence to adulthood is a continuum that is marked by the development of critical thinking skills, and that reading is one major way to hone these skills. Nilsen and Donelson, authors of the foremost textbook on teaching young adult literature, compare the "stages of literary appreciation" to steps to self-awareness, from "finding oneself in a story," to moving beyond this egocentric view. As adults-in-progress, these readers move to the stage Nilsen and Donelson describe as "venturing beyond themselves" to "look at the larger circle of society," and they choose literature that "raise[s] questions about conformity, social pressures, justice, and other aspects of human frailties and strengths" (40).
Summer of My German Soldier provides the opportunity for developing readers to move beyond simple labels and stereotypes to gaining insight into complex issues. Even Patty, in extreme physical and emotional pain, refuses to see her father solely as evil. She explains, "other times I think he's beating out from my body all his own bad" (115). Anton reinforces her insight when he tells Patty what her father did after the beating: "He stood watching the housekeeper help you into the house. Then he came into the garage and talked to himself. Over and over he kept repeating, ‘Nobody loves me. In my whole life nobody has loved me’" (116). Patty's response to this revelation raises a difficult question about the human heart: "I don't understand. Why? How could he be so mean and then worry that he isn't loved?" (116).
Into this already complicated issue, Greene mixes racism. Mr. Bergen's experience of anti-Semitism in a small southern town has caused him to internalize the hatred he has felt and to turn that hatred on his own daughter. Discerning readers will find a balance to Patty's father in her grandfather and grandmother, who refuse to use anti-Semitism as an excuse for blaming others for one's victimization. Her grandparents credit the press for telling the true story of Patty and Anton: "tonight people throughout the world will be reading about how a Jewish girl befriended a German boy" (169).
Greene's novel exposes young adult readers to the origins of self-hatred: in Patty's case her father's hatred and cruel abuse, the emotional distance and constant criticism of her mother, and the rejection of her peers. It reveals, further, the results of self-hatred and shows that she does not have to accept self-hatred as her legacy; she is determined to pursue the truth about society as a reporter.
Bette Greene's exploration of the dynamics of racism provides important insight to young adult readers about their own experiences with hatred and intolerance. As the tragedy at Columbine High School has shown us all too brutally, hatred and intolerance occur in our schools every day. This is a topic that touches the immediate world of today's young people, and educators and parents must help them to confront and deconstruct the underlying assumptions that contribute to their self-destructive behavior.
Bette Greene's on going analogy between Patty and Anton, with Patty as a kind of prisoner of war within her family and community, is a concept that is attractive to young adult readers. As Patty's friendship with Anton develops into a love story, her courageous at- tempt to help Anton escape parallels her own impending break from her father's oppression and the townspeople's scorn. Both Anton's and Patty's status as outsiders brings about their individual persecution and adds complexity to the theme of doomed young love.
Ultimately, the value of this novel lies in its presentation of the complexity of hatred. The backdrop of World War II anti-Semitism combined with postwar Southern racism provides rich texture for Greene's study of one young woman's struggle with self-hatred. Her father transfers his self-hatred to his daughter: "I saw the hate that gnarled and snarled his face like a dog gone rabid. He's going to find out someday I can hate too—" (58). The townspeople find her actions incomprehensible: "‘Jew Nazi-lover!’ screamed the minister's wife" (164). Even upstanding Jewish citizens like the lawyer Mr. Kishner, attack Patty: "Young lady, you have embarrassed Jews everywhere. Because your loyalty is questionable, then every Jew's loyalty is in question" (177). Ironically, the two people who show Patty the way out of her war within herself are a young German soldier and an old black housekeeper. The only "family member" who visits Patty in reform school is Ruth, who has worked for Patty's family for years, and who loves Patty dearly: "And from that first day I walked into your house I loved you the most, and I love you the most today…. Why, I ain't even the only one. He loved you. Anton did" (191). As Patty is left to examine her relationship to herself, her family, and to society, the reader must move through these same issues.
By exploring hatred from various angles, some of them very uncomfortable ones, Bette Greene refuses easy answers to complex questions. Her refusal is what attracts so many young adult readers to her novel and makes it worthwhile reading almost thirty years after its first appearance. For teachers trying to provide students with every opportunity for honing their critical thinking skills, Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier is a wonderful tool.
Greene, Bette. Summer of My German Soldier. New York: Dial, 1973.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth J. Donelson. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Sixth edition. New York: Longman, 2001.
MORNING IS A LONG TIME COMING (1978)
Alleen Pace Nilsen and Linda Kozarek (review date February 1979)
SOURCE: Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Linda Kozarek. Review of Morning Is a Long Time Coming, by Bette Greene. English Journal 68, no. 2 (February 1979): 101.
Another sequel that students will probably like is Bette Greene's Morning Is a Long Time Coming. This continues the story of Patty Bergin, who, as a twelve-year-old in Summer of My German Soldier, was sent to a reform school for aiding Anton, a German prisoner of war who in the 1940s had escaped from one of the camps established in rural Georgia. In the new book, Patty has graduated from high school and uses the money her grandparents gave her for college to spend a year in Europe. She has a futile dream of finding Anton's mother as a substitute for her own. She finds instead her own self-confidence and self-respect. The character motivation in this sequel is not quite as clearly drawn as in the earlier title, but there is one especially moving chapter. It is Patty's farewell visit to Ruth, the old housekeeper who played such a major role in Patty's childhood.
GET ON OUT OF HERE, PHILIP HALL (1981)
June L. Gardner (review date May 1981)
SOURCE: Gardner, June L. Review of Get on Out of Here, Philip Hall, by Bette Greene, illustrated by Charles Lilly. School Library Journal 27, no. 9 (May 1981): 64.
Gr. 4-6—Fresh from her triumphs—catching chicken thieves, leading her girl's club, the Pretty Pennies, and winning a blue ribbon in Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe (Dial. 1974)—Beth Lambert is a girl with an exaggerated opinion of herself [in Get on Out of Here, Philip Hall ]. Then Philip Hall wins the church leadership award she assumed was hers, and she is humiliated by a mistake in a big event she has planned. When the Pretty Pennies hold a secret meeting to replace her as president. Beth decides that life is over for her in Pocohontas, Arkansas, and she goes to live with her grandmother in Walnut Ridge. Gradually, she realizes she is indeed a natural leader but that her own conceit has caused her problems. After successfully engineering a community party, she returns home. Beth's solid, hard-working family, her church and her love-hate relationship with Philip Hall reinforce the security of Pocohontas, untouched by the problems of the wider world. This small, isolated world allows the story to focus directly on Beth and her difficulties and to give it a timeless quality. Children will identify with Beth's struggle with her own self-image, and enjoy the light, sure touch Greene lends to her serious theme. A successful sequel that extends rather than duplicates the earlier book.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date October 1981)
SOURCE: Review of Get on Out of Here, Philip Hall, by Bette Greene, illustrated by Charles Lilly. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 35, no. 2 (October 1981): 29-30.
In a sequel to Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, perky Beth Lambert continues the saga of her rivalry with Philip for the leadership crown of Pocahontas, Arkansas [in Get on Out of Here, Philip Hall. ] The trouble is that Beth really dotes on Philip. The further trouble is that there are others who covet Beth's niche in the town, her reputation as a leader and catalyst. Boastful and overly confident, Beth is so embarrassed by a series of defeats that she goes to stay with her grandmother for some months; she tries to become a follower, but initiative and ebullience will out, and soon Beth has organized so splendid a town festival that many of her friends as well as her family drive over to attend. And so does Philip, with whom Beth has a most satisfactory reunion. This is just as much fun as the first book, Beth is just as attractive a character, and Bette Greene's fans will no doubt relish this sequel; it will probably seem to them a minor weakness that, save for Philip, none of Beth's friends seems to have any loyalty or compassion.
THE DROWNING OF STEPHAN JONES (1991)
English Journal (review date September 1992)
SOURCE: Review of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, by Bette Greene. English Journal 81, no. 5 (September 1992): 94.
A powerful novel that will grip students tightly and not let go! We are sure that readers will find it difficult not to finish [The Drowning of Stephan Jones ] in one sitting. Bette Greene's book explores the innocence of first love, prejudice based on sexual orientation, and the bigotry strengthened by the fervor of extreme religious fundamentalism. The novel is about Carla, a teen, and her infatuation with Andy Harris, son of the local hardware store owner. If only he would show some interest in her. While Carla struggles to win Andy's attention, she also becomes interested in Stephan Jones and Frank Montgomery, two gay males who have recently moved to the area. Carla, in her blissful, romantic infatuation with Andy, fails to notice his hatred for these two men, based primarily on their lifestyle. Andy's obsession with these men grows. He taunts them, sends them obscene letters, and makes late night telephone calls. His hatred ultimately leads to a night of murderous violence. Readers will struggle with the extreme prejudice against these two and people like them by the social, political, and religious communities in this Ozark Mountain town in Arkansas. The young people responsible for Stephan Jones' death are brought to trial; the verdict is shocking. But justice seems to be done, at least from the point of view of Frank Montgomery. Greene tantalizes the reader with Frank's unspoken choices for revenge. The choice he makes, surprising as it is, reflects the masterful craft of the author. Carla comes to understand Andy for what and who he is. She stands alone but knows that she has done the right thing. The language and honest treatment of the extreme religious right may arouse controversy. The work is powerful; it should be read and discussed by young adults and adults.
Patty Campbell (review date September-October 1993)
SOURCE: Campbell, Patty. Review of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, by Bette Greene. Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 5 (September-October 1993): 568-71.
[In the following essay, Campbell expresses her personal admiration for Greene's attempts to address homophobia in The Drowning of Stephan Jones, but regards the novel as flawed book due to its lack of sympathetic characters.]
In this new column I propose to do some heavy breathing. The subject will be controversial books and issues in young-adult literature, focusing not only on sex and censorship but also on debatable matters of literary style and other social and intellectual concerns. With the help of informants on the front lines, I intend to take a close look at those books that generate heated discussion among young-adult advocates. I don't promise objectivity, although I will try to quote the opposition. As prominent young-adult librarian Christy Tyson—who suggested the title of this column—has said, we should cherish the opportunity to be uncomfortable with certain books, because it is the speck of grit in the oyster that produces not only irritation but, eventually, a pearl.
Recently, several young-adult novels have dealt with the attitudes and actions that lead to homophobic violence and the broader implications of this ugly social phenomenon. Bette Greene's The Drowning of Stephan Jones (Bantam) is the most outspoken young-adult novel on this subject, and certain the bravest, since it was the first. The subject, and the book, have inspired some passionate and divisive discussion in young-adult literary circles.
Based on an actual event, The Drowning of Stephan Jones tells the story of a gay couple, Frank Montgomery and Stephan Jones, who are harassed by local teenagers in the Bible-belt town of Rachetville, Arkansas. Young Andy Harris, spurred on by the homophobic preaching of his fundamentalist church and his bigoted father, leads his friends in pestering the two gay men with obscene phone calls and letters and violent street encounters. At last one night when Andy and his clique have been drinking, they catch Stephan alone by the river. Carried away with the rhetoric of their hatred, they beat and strip him and throw him into the water, where he drowns. These events are seen through the eyes of Andy's girlfriend, Carla, who is unable to muster the moral courage to protest despite of the example of her mother, Judith, a fiercely liberal librarian. The town rallies to Andy's support, and amidst tumultuous demonstrations and slogan-waving by both sides, the young murderers are acquitted—although the grieving Frank takes his revenge in a surprise ending.
Author Bette Greene, best known for The Summer of My German Soldier (Dial), conducted over four hundred interviews with victims and perpetrators of gay-bashing crimes in researching The Drowning of Stephan Jones. In the process she uncovered areas of victimization far broader than the estimated ten per cent of the male population who are gay. Speaking at the annual workshop of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English, she said: "Our most creative young people are being tormented…. It isn't at all necessary to be homosexual to be marked as one of America's designated victims" but only to be "a boy, very oftentimes slender, usually thoughtful, who prefers creating beauty to crushing bones…. This society's constant preaching, railing, and cruelty against homosexuality … is hurting untold numbers of young males whose only crime is [that] they're sensitive, shy, and slender."
Bette Greene must be praised for speaking out so resolutely against bigotry and hate in this book and in the many speaking engagements and television appearances that followed its publication. She received at least one death threat as a result and has set herself up as a censorship target for years to come. Initial reviews were admiring of the book's power and courage. The actual scenes of harassment are vivid and emotional. Yet, on second glance, many teachers and librarians began to find that the book's flaws diluted its message. The committee in charge of compiling ALA's annual Best Books for Young Adults list debated bitterly over the book, and finally decided not to include it. Committee member Allan Cuseo, author of Homosexual Characters in YA Novels: A Literary Analysis (Scarecrow), said, "I wanted so badly to like it—I read it three times looking for something to love!" What were some of the points brought up in that and subsequent discussions?
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the novel is Greene's conviction that the Christian church is to blame for fostering violence against gays. This may be true in the case of some fundamentalist denominations—Greene claims that the hate-filled sermons and diatribes in the book are quoted verbatim from her interviews—but it is doubtful if such an accusation can be leveled at the church as a whole. While it is true that the church has not taken the leadership position Greene demands, many mainstream and liberal congregations, both Catholic and Protestant, have sponsored gay support groups and clergy.
Indeed, Greene seems to be somewhat confused about denominational distinctions. Stephan, a devout if temporarily lapsed Catholic who has studied for the Jesuit priesthood, is consumed with the desire to get his partner Frank to "accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour" and be "born again"—a very un-Catholic way to put it—and is eager to join the local Baptist Church because it "doesn't stray too far from a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible." Yet he cries out to the Virgin Mary in Latin under stress.
Other flaws mar the book. The dialogue is stiff and false, especially between the two gay men. Several of the scenes of confrontation are overdrawn. None of the characters are admirable or sympathetic, even those that are clearly meant to be. Judith the librarian is noisily self-righteous but so unpolitic and ineffective that she has not been able to communicate her principles to her own daughter. Carla is despicable in her toadying to conformity and her deliberate blindness to Andy's cruelty, and her change of heart comes too late and lacks conviction. Reverend Wheelwright is a caricature, and Stephan embodies the worst stereotype of the gay male.
The plot leaves a number of unanswered questions. Why are Frank and Stephan so isolated, having lived for almost a year in an artsy-craftsy neighborhood? Surely they are not the only gays in town? Nor Judith the only liberal? Yet demonstrators must be imported from out of town, and at the trial Frank yearns for "an expression of sympathy from even one straight person." Why is Frank not called as a witness for the prosecution? And, most crucial, why does Frank not attempt to get Andy's harassing letters to Stephan introduced as evidence? One has to suspect that the reason is so that they will be available to fuel the tricky ending.
That ending itself, while it is entertaining, is one of the book's most problematic aspects. In front of a crowd of well-wishers and television cameras, Frank offers Andy back his "love letters" to Stephan—in actuality, the harassing letters—and then burns them. The most terrible punishment conceivable for Andy is that he be tainted in the public eye with the suspicion of homosexuality. Isn't it the ironically unintentional lesson, then, that being thought gay is the worst possible thing that can happen to a young man?
What other books can be substituted on this vital subject? I would like to suggest as alternatives two other young-adult novels that deal with gay-bashing in less dramatic but more believable and teen-relevant ways: Twelve Days in August (Holiday) by Liza Ketchum Murrow and Peter (Houghton) by Kate Walker. Both books have protagonists who are afraid of being compromised in their peers' eyes by friendship with a gay person, and both are set in the sports world of young males where fag is the ultimate insult and violence is the obligatory response to restore self-respect.
In Twelve Days in August sixteen-year-old Todd makes the varsity soccer team, and so does brutal Randy Tovitch and newcomer Alex Beekman. Alex is a brilliant player, but "tall and almost too thin, and he had this timid, polite look"—Bette Greene's designated victim incarnate. Out of jealousy over Alex's skill, Randy begins a name-calling campaign to brand Alex as gay. Todd makes no effort to defend Alex; he accepts Randy's assessment without question. Todd is as obstinate in his fence-sitting as Carla in his fear of contamination from Alex's reputation. Only when the team is threatened by Randy's refusal to include Alex in the soccer plays does Todd begin to feel involved. He goes to his Uncle Gordo, a man he respects and admires, for advice and is stunned when Gordo tells him he is gay. The revelation, however, eventually gives Todd the compassion to accept Alex and force at least a temporary reconciliation with Randy.
A subplot makes the intriguing point—often raised in the real-life controversy over gays in the military—that hatred for gays is akin to racial bigotry. Craig, a black member of the team, says to Todd, "Calling Alex a fag might be like calling me nigger…. It doesn't matter which insult you use, it's still hate."' And when the coach continues to ignore the name-calling, they challenge him: "If Tovitch called Craig a nigger, would you ignore it?"' (Interestingly enough, several reviewers have referred to The Drowning of Stephan Jones as the To Kill a Mockingbird of the nineties. Certainly the scenes of gay-bashing invoke the same baffled rage readers remember from descriptions of lynchings in an earlier era.)
Peter is set in Australia and loaded with down-under teen expressions such as prang, drongo, and hoon. Despite this superficial exoticism, familiar homophobic themes emerge. Rumors of homosexuality, says one character, are "the price you pay for winning the English prize."' Fifteen-year-old Peter hangs out with a bunch of dirt-bikers who think that risking their necks and accusing the weakest member of their group of being gay proves their manhood. Although he is repelled by their cruelty, Peter is disturbed when he realizes he is attracted to his older brother's wise and graceful gay friend, David. When some of the bikers see the two of them together, Peter is labeled a "poof." In an attempt to prove to himself that he isn't gay, he has a date with the school "slut," only to be put off by her coarse advances. Egged on by his brother, he has a fight with one of the gang; when David comforts him afterward, his response to the unaccustomed tenderness almost convinces him he really is gay. In a moving final scene, Peter goes to David to settle his doubts by offering himself. The older boy refuses his advances, but then gently helps Peter realize that he must allow himself time to realize his true sexual identity.
Both these books lack the sensational impact of The Drowning of Stephan Jones but are more realistic, and thus perhaps more helpful, in their exposure of the unspoken assumptions and small cruelties among young males that can escalate into bigoted violence.
English Journal (review date November 1993)
SOURCE: Review of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, by Bette Greene. English Journal 82, no. 7 (November 1993): 94.
When Carla Wayland's new boyfriend launches a campaign of hate and harassment against a gay couple in their small Arkansas hometown, she represses her qualms rather than risk jeopardizing the relationship [in The Drowning of Stephan Jones ]. After a confrontation on prom night leads to Jones' drowning, Carla must decide whether to stand with her friends or to tell the truth and accept the consequences. The inciting incident is implausible, and some of the regional flavor is gratuitous ("slick as boiled okra"), but otherwise Greene's competence makes the story more than a polemic against homophobia. Although she attempts to present both perspectives, conservative Christians may object to some characterizations. While it lacks the depth and power of Greene's Summer of My German Soldier, this book deserves attention.
Carolyn Meyer (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Meyer, Carolyn. "The Drowning of Stephan Jones, by Bette Greene." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 159-62. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
[In the following essay, Meyer contends that censors' protestations against The Drowning of Stephan Jones are the result of a failure to understand the core message behind the book.]
Several years ago, when I was living in a small Texas town, home to two universities, I was pleased to learn that Bette Greene had been invited by a mall bookstore, part of a national chain, to come to speak in our community. I had read Greene's Summer of My German Soldier when it was first published in 1973, and I looked forward to seeing and hearing in person the author of that excellent work.
This was the same pleasant, easygoing college town where my Jewish stepdaughter, recently returned from a year in Israel, had joined the marching band at the local high school, only to discover that the theme of the halftime routine was "Christianity." The band was to march down the field in the form of the Latin cross while playing a medley of Christian hymns. This is not the time or place to describe the viciousness that ensued when we protested, mumbling something about "separation of church and state." The situation quickly escalated with our daughter being demonized in her high school as "the Jew bitch" who was causing all the trouble to the poor, unhappy band members.
"If you don't like the way we do things here, why don't you just leave?" was the recurrent theme in letters to the editor published in the local paper. We were often referred to as "communists," and one letter-writer suggested that our protest somehow heralded the approach of Nazism, right there in Texas.
So I was hardly surprised at the furor that resulted when a number of alert citizens realized that the same Bette Greene who had written so movingly about a Jewish girl's forbidden friendship with a German POW during World War II in Summer of My German Soldier had also written The Drowning of Stephan Jones, a book that promoted homosexuality!
Perhaps the alert citizens had not actually read The Drowning of Stephan Jones but had heard others talk about it and understood that it was about two gay men, Stephan Jones and Frank Montgomery, who move to a small town in Arkansas to open an antique shop. Their very existence infuriates some of the townspeople, particularly a group of high school boys who begin a campaign of harassment and humiliation of the two men that results in the death of one of those men. The boys responsible for Stephan Jones's death are exonerated; indeed, they are celebrated as folk heroes.
A vocal minority in my real Texas town reacted to Bette Greene's novel the way the folks in her fictional town of Rachetville, Arkansas, would have reacted: they wanted no part of the book or its author. The bookstore sponsor of Greene's's visit to our town decided to withdraw the invitation.
I cannot fathom how anyone could read about the tormenting and brutalizing of a couple of gay men and conclude that the book in any way celebrates or promotes homosexuality. If anything, the novel clearly demonstrates that a lifestyle considered sinful by many may come at a high cost of pain and suffering, and even death.
The story is told primarily from the point of view of Carla Wayland, a smart and attractive high school student who is something of an outsider, tainted by the absence of a father and the reputation of her sometimes embarrassingly liberal mother, the town's outspoken librarian. Carla has developed a crush on Andy Harris, the handsome, blue-eyed, popular scion of a prosperous and respected family. This is Carla's first romance, and she can hardly believe her good fortune when her affections seem to be returned. His friends become her friends; at last Carla feels she belongs. But Andy has a wide streak of cruelty in him, the legacy of his thoroughly unpleasant and bigoted father, the owner of a hardware store.
The novel, set at the time of a gay and lesbian rights march in Little Rock, opens just before Christmas when Carla first spots an evidently gay male couple in the Harrises' store and witnesses the first ugly incident of prejudice against them: "‘Sodomites!’" hisses a customer, who later continues her diatribe. "‘Just because you faggots are ranting and raving and carrying on about your rights outside our statehouse—who do you think you are? If God wanted you to have rights, then why would he have gone and invented AIDS!?’"
It doesn't take long for Carla to realize that her handsome boyfriend also hates homosexuals. "‘If I were president, first thing I'd do is to make death for homosexuality the law…. ’ Andy tells her. ‘Treat queers the same way we treat murderers, let them all fry to a frizzle in the electric chair.’"
Carla attempts to reason with him: "‘You can't electrocute someone for being something. You can only electrocute people for doing something.’" She is shocked and disappointed by Andy's attitude, but she is unprepared to challenge him further. Surely, she believes, this boy for whom she cares so much can't be doing anything really wrong.
The story unfolds throughout the winter with a continuing build-up of tension between the gay men and Andy and his friends. The three boys engage in name-calling, vandalism and graffiti, harassing phone calls, and anonymous letters; their verbal attacks turn physical.
But Carla, in her desire to keep Andy's love and to be part of a group, rarely speaks out. The daughter of the outspoken librarian is too fearful of the consequences—the loss of love and acceptance by her peers—if she speaks her mind.
At times the point of view shifts from Carla to Stephan and Frank, who try to find some way to put a stop to the persecution but who, like Carla, also desire acceptance. Intelligent, decent men, they want nothing more than to live their ordinary lives in peace. One of the subplots involves the efforts of Stephan, a devoutly religious man, to convince his partner to join a church that they both know rejects and condemns them as homosexuals.
The novel reaches a climax on the night of the senior prom. Greene's writing is at its most powerful as she describes the horrifying scene. On their way home from the prom with Carla in the car, Andy and his friends discover Stephan and Frank walking on a lonely road. Frank escapes, but (while Carla remains in the car) Andy and his friends strip, humiliate, and—despite his pleas that he can't swim—throw Stephan into the river. Only when she finally realizes what is happening does Carla take action and run for help. But it's too late to save Stephan.
The dénouement in the courtroom where Andy Harris is on trial and walks away without punishment is certain to rouse the anger of the sympathetic reader, although the grieving Frank Montgomery does in the final pages achieve a kind of justice that the law fails to provide.
I am nearly always surprised by the books that are challenged by adults who seek to keep certain kinds of provocative and disturbing materials out of the hands of impressionable young readers; sometimes I'm not even certain what could be found objectionable. But the fact that The Drowning of Stephan Jones has been challenged is no surprise at all. One need only read the daily paper or watch the evening news to realize the extent to which homophobia thrives in this country.
A large number of people are so convinced that homosexuality is a deadly sin that they oppose federal legislation making it easier for prosecutors to try hate crimes based on sexual orientation. What happened to Matthew Shepard, the twenty-one year old homosexual student at the University of Wyoming, who died in 1998 after being beaten and tied to a fence, is not much different from what happens to Stephan Jones in Bette Greene's 1991 novel.
The antigay faction will, without question, continue its efforts to keep this book off the shelves and Bette Greene off the speaker's platform. Bette Greene does not promote homosexuality, but she does strongly oppose violence against individuals who are deemed "different." After another "disinvitation," this one in Arkansas, Ms. Greene wondered of those who canceled her talk, "Could it be that they did not share my outrage in the unprovoked murder of a young man?" The young man she spoke of was Stephan Jones, the character, but she could have been speaking of Matthew Shepard, the real person.
Stephan Jones is not the only tragic figure in the novel. Tragic in another way is young Carla Wayland, who, faced with overwhelming pressure, kept quiet for much too long. Now, Carla must live with the knowledge that the help she finally offered the suffering Stephan Jones was far too little, and it came much too late. Tragic too, if outspoken opposition to Bette Greene's book were to silence effectively the Carla Waylands among us.
Greene, Bette. The Drowning of Stephan Jones. New York: Bantam, 1991.
———. Summer of My German Soldier. New York: Dial, 1973.
I'VE ALREADY FORGOTTEN YOUR NAME, PHILLIP HALL! (2004)
Elizabeth Bush (review date June 2004)
SOURCE: Bush, Elizabeth. Review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Phillip Hall!, by Bette Greene, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 10 (June 2004): 419-20.
Beth Lambert is back after a more than a two-decade absence, and although Leonard Jenkins' artwork has given her and Philip an updated, slightly edgier look, her narrative attitude and so-SO-wholesome shenanigans are an awkward blast from the past [in I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall! ]. There's a wispy story line regarding the presidency of the girls' Pretty Pennies club, which has fallen under draconian leadership while Beth was out of town. There's another brief diversion involving Beth and Philip's investigation into the disappearance of brother Luther's singing piglet, but the mystery is dispatched in a single interview. The main event springs from a misunderstanding between Beth and Philip, which results in his challenging a nonexistent arm-wrestler from a neighboring town to a grudge match that will restore Walnut Ridge, Arkansas to rightful athletic renown. Events are wildly out of balance, with dispensable plot lines given too much attention, e.g., an overcooked gag about mustard-ing hot dogs, while others, such as the hunt for the singing piglet, are left underdone. Language is frequently stilted ("They were screaming and pulling on their hair just like Philip Hall was a Country-and-Western singing star or something"), with a style that struggles in vain for a natural narrative voice. For a more tightly written series featuring African-American girls, try Sandra Belton's Ernestine and Amanda books instead.
Julie Watkins (review date June 2004)
SOURCE: Watkins, Julie. Review of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Phillip Hall!, by Bette Greene, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins. Voice of Youth Advocates 27, no. 2 (June 2004): 129-30.
Philip Hall [of I've Already Forgotten Your Name, Philip Hall! ] is cute, brave, funny, and according to Beth Lambert, one of the most infuriating boys in the world. When Beth returns from a long visit with her grandmother in nearby Walnut Ridge, she sees that things have changed. She finds herself at odds with her former friends, the Pretty Pennies. Then her best friend and somewhat secret crush, Philip, accuses her of taking up with another boy while she was away. Furious, Beth allows him to believe that the fictitious Cyclone Tyrone is not only crazy about her but is also a champion arm wrestler. Philip is jealous of course, but there is one problem: He wants to challenge Tyrone to an arm wrestling tournament for the entire town to see. The ensuing chaos from this deceit forms the basis for this novel.
Fans of Greene's other Philip Hall books will find this new installment to be inferior to the first in the series, Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe (Dial, 1974). The situational repetitiveness and simple text will not appeal to many teen readers, who will have a difficult time staying interested. Even readers at the younger end of the spectrum in grades six through eight might find the novel too juvenile for their tastes. Character interactions, although amusing at first, become rather annoying as the story progresses. Although this book might find its way onto summer reading lists, it probably will not find its way onto many teens' personal bookshelves.
Byars, Betsy. Review of Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, by Bette Greene, illustrated by Charles Lilly. New York Times Book Review (8 December 1974): 9.
Offers a positive assessment of Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, calling the text "charming and fresh."
Sourian, Peter. Review of Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene. New York Times Book Review (4 November 1973): 29.
Praises Greene's prose in Summer of My German Soldier, noting that, "[t]he detail is too meaningfully specific, too highly selective to be trite."
Additional coverage of Greene's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 7, 69; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 4, 146; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 30; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 10; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Ed. 5; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 8, 102, 161; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 16; and Writers for Young Adults.