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Monday, February 04, 2008

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank: A Novel of Remembering and Forgetting

(book image from Barnes & Noble)

Nearly everyone recognizes the name Anne Frank; it is synonymous with wit, honesty and bravery. Her diary has touched millions. I can't imagine anyone not being inspired by her story. Ellen Feldman, however, can. In her novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, she imagines a man who suffers a mental break at the mere sight of Anne's published diary. Why would the writings of a young girl cause a man's psyche to disintegrate? Because he is Peter van Pels, the boy who hid in the Annex with Anne and her family. He is Peter van Pels, the man who has tried desperately to forget his past.
In the book's "Acknowledgments" section, Feldman describes her experience visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Her tour guide stated that the fates of all the occupants of the Annex were known except for that of Peter. The mystery sparked Feldman's imagination. By the time she discovered her guide had been misinformed (according to a Red Cross dossier, Peter died in Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945), the character had already formed in her head. Thus, it is Feldman's creation we meet in her book.
When The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank opens, it is 1952 and an adult Peter is sitting in a psychiatrist's office. The doctor has been consulted to treat the sudden, inexplicable bout of laryngitis which has seized Peter's body. Much to his dismay, the psychiatrist insists on peppering him with ridiculous questions, even inquiring as to his wife's reading material. Surprisingly, it's the answer to this last inquiry that gives him his answer: Madeliene had been reading the newly-published The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank.
The publication of the book causes not only laryngitis, but a psychotic break that has Peter grappling with a past he's worked desperately to bury. Unbeknownst to the Red Cross, he escaped the prison camps and eventually migrated to America. When he steps off the boat in New York, Peter covers the tattooed number on his arm, hides his Jewish ancestry, and sets out in pursuit of the American dream. Not even a decade later, he has a successful career, a nice home and an unsuspecting Jewish wife. He has hidden his past so successfully that no one - not even Madeliene - suspects the pains he endured during the war. Then the diary is published and he feels the past whirring around him, a tornado that threatens to destroy everything in his carefully-constructed life.
With memories haunting his every step, Peter begins lashing out. He knows he should tell his family the truth, but he's desperate to keep them anonymous, safe. Then, Anne's diary is made into a play, a play which distorts the events in the Annex for heightened dramatic effect. Madeliene describes a particular event - part of the fabricated story, although she doesn't know that - in the drama:
"It was the most awful scene. One night Mrs. Frank hears a noise and gets up, and there's Mr. van Daan [In her diary, Anne uses "van Daan" to hide the identity of Peter's family, the van Pels'], the father of the boy Ann's in love with, stealing bread from the cupboard. All the time they thought it was the rats, it was really him. He. Taking food out of his own child's mouth. Can you imagine?" (p. 149)
The diary has caused enough problems, but Peter can't tolerate the thought of America ingesting a horrid lie about his father. He snaps. Torn between telling the truth and protecting his family, Peter spirals out of control. On the brink of divorce and mental breakdown, Peter makes a scene during the trial of Otto Frank, which seals his fate. He has no choice but to reveal his identity, but telling the truth means remembering, and remembering means facing memories so torturous they could crush him forever.
The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is a complicated, somber tale about identity and the ravaging impact of war on the human psyche. It's a story about truth and risking all to find out who you really are. Mostly, it's just what its cover proclaims it to be: "A Novel of Remembering and Forgetting." It's spare, thought-provoking and utterly moving. It's not an easy read by any means, but it's one you won't soon forget.
Grade: B


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. Looks like I have another book to put on my to be read list. This looks very interesting.

  2. This one sounds most compelling. What an intriguing idea. I'll have to look this one up.

  3. I don't feel like I described this one very well, but it's very compelling. It's not an easy read, and it's a bit depressing, but I thought it was worth the read.

  4. Hi - just a quick comment to let you know that you've been tagged!

  5. Wonderful review, Susan! I actually think you did describe it very well.


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