I remember reading Summer of My German Soldier in junior high. Did you read it, too? Written by Bette Greene, hers was a coming-of-age story about a young Jewish girl’s efforts to help an escaped German POW soldier. The suspenseful plot and likable characters kept me engaged. And the setting? It was familiar. The protagonist, Patty Jergen, lived in Jenkinsville, a small town in Arkansas. Although fictitious, Jenkinsville was based on the author’s hometown of Parkin, Arkansas. And Parkin wasn’t too far from where I grew up.
As a child, Greene spent much of her time hanging around her parents’ general store. I recently drove through the old downtown area of Parkin and tried to imagine where Greene’s father’s store might have been. I wondered if the folks living in Parkin today have read the historically important book she penned in 1973? Possibly not. Since Summer of My German Soldier is on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, it’s no longer included on official school reading lists. Even so, there’s a part of Arkansas history represented within the pages of her award-winning book that should be remembered.
During World War II, more than 20,000 German and Italian prisoners of war were held in Arkansas, most in central and eastern portions of the state—Camp Robinson in Pulaski County, Camp Chaffee in Sebastian County, Camp Dermott in Chicot County, and Camp Monticello in Drew County. Because so many Arkansans were serving overseas, the farm and timber industries suffered a labor shortage. To alleviate this, branch camps were established throughout the delta including eight camps in Mississippi County. These POWs lived in tents, Quonset hut housing or Civilian Conservation Corps facilities. These were the men who chopped cotton and made up the agricultural labor shortfall in the delta region during World War II.
There aren’t many people still around who remember those days. The barracks are long gone. But evidence of the POW camps still exist in the delta if you know where to look.
The Mississippi County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum in Osceola, a stop on the Great River Road, has an interesting collection of information regarding area POW camps. Society president and museum volunteer Glynda Thompson is a wealth of information. She shared several artifacts and treasures with me, including the following picture of the German POW camp that once existed behind the old drive-in theatre in Osceola.
Just past Lee Wilson & Company cotton gin between Wilson and Bassett (Mississippi County), a historical marker marks the spot of the Bassett Labor Camp. The entrance gates are all that remain. I couldn’t help but wonder what the old trees remember.
After Summer of My German Soldier, Greene went on to write many more children and young adult books including Newbery Honor book Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe (also set in small town Arkansas). I have a soft spot for Newbery books. I also have a soft spot for small towns in Arkansas. Greene currently resides in Florida.