The legions of writers who appropriate in any way any part of the Anne Frank story (full disclosure: I am one of them) face a dilemma. As Anne retreats into history, we must find new ways to keep her memory alive. But often a cry of outrage goes up: Don’t tamper with the Anne Frank we revere.
The moving novel Annexed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17) by Sharon Dogar met with just such a response. Not only was Dogar toying with the story, critics cried, she was injecting sex into what some regard as a sacred text. The alarm was uncalled for. The novel does not insult or diminish Anne, but it does deepen our understanding of the seven people in hiding with her, and therefore of Anne herself.
Anne Frank was a precociously gifted young writer with a keen eye, a flair for the telling detail, and the determination to rewrite and polish that turned her seemingly artless diary into a work of literature. But she was also a young girl with a young girl’s limitations, prejudices, and quickness to judge. The characters we have come to know from her diary are not necessarily the people she was “trapped” with (Peter’s word in this novel) for 25 months. Anne’s sister, Margot, also kept a diary; had that survived, we might have a very different picture of life in the Secret Annex.
Another point of view is what Dogar gives us in this carefully researched, beautifully realized novel. Peter is no longer simply the object of Anne’s early disdain and subsequent romantic attachment, but a flesh-and-blood teenage boy, who, like all teenage boys, thinks about sex. What is more normal, more honest, than a 16-year-old in a perilous situation fearing he will die without ever making love to a girl? He is also a boy on his way to manhood, wrestling with issues of courage and evil and what it means to be a Jew. “I think of…a time when it [being a Jew] was just one of the things I was….Not the only thing.”
Similarly, in this new telling, Peter’s parents come alive not as the boorish couple who irk the quick-witted, irrepressible Anne, but as a loving, occasionally lighthearted husband and wife.
While Annexed probes more deeply into the characters who went into hiding, Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (Hill and Wang, $16.95) casts a wider net. It seeks to tell, in illustrations and text, not only the story of Anne’s entire life, but also Germany’s descent into Nazism.
This book begins with the Frank family history before Anne was born, follows her to her death in Bergen-Belsen, and goes beyond, to the discovery of her diary by her father, Otto, the only one of the eight arrested in the Secret Annex who survived the concentration camps. Interspersed are “snapshots” that put Anne’s personal experience in context, from the rise of Hitler through the horrors of the camps to the end of the war, the establishment of the Anne Frank House, and the worldwide recognition as a writer for which Anne so longed.
Ellen Feldman is the author of Scottsboro; The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank; and Lucy. Her novel Next To Love will be published in August.