The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

by Sharon Dogar

In this fictional account of life in the famous Amsterdam annex with Anne Frank, Peter van Pels—the “boy who loved Anne Frank,” as the cover identifies him—looks back on his time there from his deathbed in Mauthausen, the concentration camp where, records indicate, he died at the age of eighteen in 1945. Through Peter’s narration, Dogar traces daily life in the annex—the monotony of the food, the hope and anxiety of listening for news of the war, the evolving relationships among the inhabitants—with a sure hand and an eye for details that will increase the narrative’s accessibility for modern audiences without diminishing the impact or gravity of the true story. Juxtaposing the developing romance between Peter and Anne with their growing maturity and self-awareness, the book paints Anne in particular with great affection: she is brash, humanized by her flaws, full of life and curiosity, attractive to Peter for all the same reasons that she is sometimes irritating. Her maturation is gradual, nuanced, and realistically incomplete, described in tandem with Peter’s growing affection for her.

While the romance is the central plot, the book’s focus on character and relationship extends beyond Peter and Anne. Anne’s sister, Margot, Mr. Frank, and Peter’s mother receive particularly in-depth narrative treatments, and the tension and kindnesses shared among such different personalities in cruelly close quarters are thoroughly explored. Dogar also weaves in organic musings on religious identity and faith, drawing on Anne’s actual observation of Peter’s religious skepticism to develop the philosophical crisis boiling beneath Peter’s quiet, shy exterior. Discussions among agnostic Peter, believer Anne, and noncommittal Mr. Frank (asked if he’ll still be Jewish after the war, he replies, “It would certainly be nice to think that we might have that choice”) provide a framework for considering questions of faith in crisis, with the author’s position as invisible moderator allowing for the expression of multiple viewpoints. Meanwhile, the setting comes alive: the claustrophobia permeating the narrative is palpable and intense, as is the sense of isolation and longing for the outside world, powerfully captured in the attention paid to recurrent details such as the small, precious patch of sunlight that beams into the attic and a subtle reverence for silence and space. When, late in the novel, the newly arrested inhabitants of the annex pause in unison for just a moment to feel the sun on their faces before entering the police truck that will carry them to the camps, it is a poignant, ironic fulfillment of years of longing.

Unlike Anne, Dogar writes with knowledge of the story’s final chapters, and the inevitable end underscores the entire story; it surfaces in Peter’s prescient dreams as well as his retrospective narrative interjections, and it rescues the book when it teeters on the edge of oversentimentalization. The final chapters extend the narrative beyond the time period covered in Anne’s diary to include Peter’s final days in Auschwitz and Mauthausen, providing a graphic lesson in the Nazi apparatus of systematic dehumanization as Peter, gradually stripped of all human support, fights to survive at all costs. At this point, given the lack of reliable documentation, the author (according to her note) uses Peter as a sort of everyman, representative of the experiences of unnamed thousands. A story that begins as a romance eventually and truthfully turns simply brutal, refusing to flinch away from the horror that followed the diary’s end.

The novel is substantially built upon the framework of the source, pairing fresh re-workings of conversations and events described in Anne’s diary with compelling new scenes that fit into the empty spaces. Constructed conversations and interactions take Peter and Anne to a level of romantic involvement not touched upon in the published diary, but it’s a plausible level, still very much in keeping with the ages of the couple, the situational constraints, and the diary’s direct, young-old tone. The narratives of Annexed (which conveniently offers dated chapter headings) and Anne Frank thus gracefully chronologically interlock in a way that invites concurrent reading. Ironically, readers used to the controlled artifice of fictional narrative arcs may even find the novel an easier entry into Anne’s life than Anne’s own diary, though the diary still understandably holds far more resonance for mature readers. The lines between written record, educated guess, and fictional construct are fascinatingly blurred here (despite an informative author’s note), made all the more so when readers consider the role perspective, translation, and editing play in the written record. The book’s skillful synthesis of all these facets should stimulate discussion about the nature of history, fiction, and truth.

Claire Gross, Reviewer



Cover image from Annexed ©2010.  Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

[Back to the Bulletin Homepage] [Back to the Bulletin Archives]

This page was last updated on November 1, 2010.