Bette Evensky Greene (1934–2020)
Bette Evensky Greene was a successful novelist who was raised in Arkansas and who used Arkansas as the setting for many of her novels. Her most noted novel, Summer of My German Soldier, is read widely and was made into a television movie.
Bette Greene was born on June 28, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee, to Arthur Evensky and Sadie Steinberg Evensky, who lived in Parkin (Cross County), thirty-five miles from Memphis. The Evenskys were the only Jewish family in Parkin; they attended synagogue in Memphis. Their store was called Evensky’s Dry Goods.
Greene lived in Parkin until she was thirteen. Even after she left, she retained ties to the community, including her childhood friend Eda Claire Slabaugh, who became mayor. She graduated from Central High School in Memphis in 1952. She attended the University of Alabama in 1952, Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in 1953–54, Alliance Française in Paris, France, in 1954, Columbia University in 1955, and Harvard University in 1972. She earned no degrees, though her later courses were directly tied to creative writing.
According to Greene, she became a professional writer at nine when she sold a news story about a Parkin barn fire to the Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily newspaper, for eighteen cents. She worked again with the Commercial Appeal as a student correspondent while attending Memphis State and later as a full-time reporter. She was an occasional contributor to the weekly Hebrew Watchman (1950–1952). She served with the Memphis Bureau of the United Press (1953–1954) and worked as an information officer for the American Red Cross (1958–1959) and then for the Boston State Psychiatric Hospital (1959–1961).
She married Donald Sumner Greene, a Boston physician, on June 13, 1959, and settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. She had two children, Carla and Jordan.
Greene’s novel Summer of My German Soldier is a young-adult classic, frequently taught in classrooms and popular as elective reading. Set in a small Arkansas town during World War II, it tells the story of a lonely Jewish girl who aids a German prisoner after he escapes from a stateside prisoner of war camp. The novel is partly autobiographical and is historically and psychologically realistic. In 1973, Summer of My German Soldier was a National Book Award finalist, was listed as an American Library Association Notable Book, and won the New York Times Outstanding Book Award and the Golden Kite Society children’s book writer’s award. In 1978, the novel was adapted as a television movie starring Kristy McNichol, Esther Rolle, Bruce Davison, Michael Constantine, and Barbara Barrie. The following year, the movie adaptation earned Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Writing. Rolle won the Outstanding Supporting Actress award.
Greene’s Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. was the 1974 New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year and won the American Library Association Notable Children’s Book award; in 1975 it was named a Newbery Honor Book. Other books by Greene include Morning Is a Long Time Coming (1978), A Writer’s Survivor Kit (1981), Get On Out of Here, Philip Hall (1981), Them That Glitter and Them That Don’t (1983), and The Drowning of Stephan Jones (1991).
Greene’s books typically show sympathy for those who are treated unjustly. Summer of My German Soldier exposes abusive parents and self-righteous bigots while revealing the plight of an alienated Jewish girl, a German prisoner, African Americans, and a Chinese grocer, while The Drowning of Stephan Jones sides with gays against religious fundamentalists who, in the course of the novel, brutally attack a young gay man. Greene believed that the theme of this latter book resulted in the cancellation of her speaking engagement at Harding University, a Church of Christ school in Searcy (White County), in April 2000, though a Harding spokesman claimed that the engagement had never been formalized.
Greene died on October 2, 2020, in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
For additional information:
Alvine, Lynn. “Understanding Adolescent Homophobia: An Interview with Bette Greene.” ALAN 21 (Winter 1994): 5–9. Online at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/winter94/Alvine.html (accessed July 19, 2023).
Bowden, Bill. “State-Born Novelist Greene Dies at 86.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 3, 2020, p. 2B.
Gallo, Donald R., ed. Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1990.
Greene, Bette. “The Spring of My Harding Lecture.” Arkansas Times. April 28, 2000, pp. 8–9. Online at https://ncac.org/news/blog/harding-university-disinvites-author-after-reading-her-novel-based-on-gay-mans-murder (accessed July 19, 2023).
Hagen, Lyman B. Arkansas Authors: Bette Greene. Jonesboro, AR: Craighead County and Jonesboro Public Library, 1983.
Arkansas State University
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