Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tell, Tell: Annexed by Sharon Dogar

Is everyone dead? Are there no Jews left except me?

"Tell, tell, tell, tell, tell," the voices beat at my body, so many voices, so many bodies, so many stories ended. It should be Anne here, Anne with her shining eyes standing in the doorway, crying, "I have so much to say, so many stories inside of me, Peter!"

"How can I tell of this?" I ask her in despair.

"Put it into words," she whispers, "and begin."

"Are there any words for this?"

"What else have we?"

Anne Frank is almost fourteen, still a child, really, and Peter Van Pels is almost sixteen and in love with a girl named Liese when they go into hiding in the famous annex in Amsterdam. Crowded into a couple of rooms behind a door concealed by a bookshelf , dependent on their Dutch protectors for their lives, the two families try to keep up their spirits, to educate their children, and wait for liberation by the English and Americans who seem still so far away.

Peter longs to live to walk free, outside in the sunshine and the rain. For Anne and her father the hope is to live and tell their story for those who cannot. Eventually, of course, their story is a personal tragedy. The annex is discovered; they are taken to concentration camps deep in Europe just ahead of the invading Allies, and all but Mr. Frank die as liberation draws near. As the Russians come, Peter lies near death, remembering it all, trying to tell their story to whomever will listen. But at that moment, in Anne's little plaid-bound diary left behind in the annex, their story lies waiting to be found, immortalized, as told in her poignant adolescent writings.

The two families are all too human in author Sharon Dogar's fictionalized account narrated by Peter Van Pels. Peter fights with his parents, embarrassed by his father's well-worn jokes and his mother's flirting and silly giggles, and finds Mr. Frank's dogged optimism tedious. At first Peter hates know-it-all Anne with her silly little girl chatter, and longs for his past life, his moments with Liese, his friends, his freedom to make his own life in the world. But as the two teenagers mature over two years in the annex, friendship and nascent love between them develops, and at last Peter understands why Anne must write:
I hold her as tight as I can, as though I could keep keep this fear from spilling out and drowning us. After a while the shakes become shudders.

She takes a deep breath. "I'm scared," she says. "Scared that all the things inside me will never see daylight."

"I know." I rock her. "Me, too."

Decades pass, events move on, and first-person accounts of the days of the Holocaust have become part of the tomes of history, something to study, like the Punic Wars, a part of the semester's syllabus. To make the young reader see and hear the reality of that time becomes harder as the past swiftly recedes behind us in the blur of the daily news cycle. Sharon Dogar's new historical novel, Annexed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), forthcoming in early October, is, as she says, a way of "reimagining history," a way, "to try to keep the facts of what happened during the Second World War alive for each new generation, in the hope that they remain aware of how catastrophic the consequences of hate can be."

Innumerable small holocausts since that time remind us why this is so.

The Diary of Anne Frank has been read and re-read, taught, dramatized, filmed, Cliff-noted, and annotated for half a century now. This new account, in the imagined thoughts and words of Peter Van Pels in his final days as a concentration camp prisoner, does more than just give us a different view of the Anne Frank rendered so vividly in her own words during their days hiding from the Nazis in the Annex. It reminds us that Anne's voice is only one of many, cut off by death so early, and it is now for her survivors, the reimagined Peter and the second, third, and subsequent generations of us all, to continue her witness. This novel does that honestly and well.

The trailer for Annexed may be seen here.

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