Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife"

"Dear Anne,
Your silent photograph disperses you thirteen shrouded
years. Were you always
so fragile and mute, Anne Frank? I look at you but you
are no longer a face behind the bankrupt mirror"
- from Dear Anne Frank: Poems by Marjorie Agosin

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is a book that students usually encounter as an eyewitness account of one girl's experiences during the Holocaust, and they often remember the book as a straightforward diary. Although the diary does function as a firsthand account of a tragedy, it isn't pure, unedited work that most people think it is. Besides the fact that Otto Frank, Anne's father and the only surviving member of the Secret Annex, decided not to publish some of the more intimate entries and unflattering portrayals of the Annex dwellers (out of respect for the dead), Anne herself did a lot of editing and rewriting of her work while in the attic, looking ahead to its publication after the war.

Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife attempts to correct the misconception that Anne's work is merely a diary by offering an in-depth look at her self-editing process, her growth as a writing, and the immense influence her diary has had (both as a book and as a play/film). It is a surprisingly effective way of forcing the reader to rediscover a classic and appreciate it on a new level.

While Prose gives us an overview of of the Franks' lives before the war, the first half of the book is entrenched in discussing Anne's writing and editing process. Inspired after hearing on the radio that Gerrit Bolkestein, the minister of education, art, and science in the exiled Dutch government, was looking for documents written by Dutch citizens during the war, Anne made numerous rewrites and revisions to her existing writing. Prose also cites other influences on Anne's writing, including the popular Joop ter Heul novels (an adolescent literature series) and the continued evolution of the relationships among the inhabitants of the Secret Annex.

The second half of Prose's book gives us an account of the book's influence, including the formation of the Anne Frank-Fonds and the Anne Frank Foundation, the opening of the Anne Frank House, and creation (and bitter disputes over) the Broadway play based on the diary. Throughout all of this, Prose never allows us to neglect Anne's skill and voice as a writer. For instance, she calls attention to the problematic Broadway adaption. Although she concedes that the play did bring Anne to a larger audience, she also notes that, by trying to make the play more universal, the playwrights under emphasized the work's Jewish identity and made Anne seem naive and "stupid, which is the impression created by scene after scene" in the play.

Despite possibly overstating Anne's metacognitive abilities when it comes to her writing, this book is successful overall in that it provokes us to rethink the diary as not just an eyewitness look at the Holocaust but also as a piece of literature. I particularly recommend for teachers (and English teacher educators) to read this book and reconsider how to approach The Diary of a Young Girl when teaching it to students. By encouraging us to look at the diary with a new perspective, Prose's work might be one of the best ways to remember and honor Anne's legacy, not just as a victim of the Holocaust or as an adolescent who died far too soon but also as a writer.