That'll cheer you up

As a break from my list of depressing reads, I turned to Anne Frank.

Yeah, I know. It's like continuing to eat spicy food while complaining that your mouth's on fire.

Mallory asked me about Hitler the other day. How do you explain Hitler to a 9-year-old? Her main concern seemed to be whether such a thing could ever happen again. She didn't seem comforted by my answer ("I hope not") but what else can you say?

Anyway, in an attempt to bring things down to her level, I told her about Anne Frank. Then I ordered a book for her -- "Who Was Anne Frank?" -- one of a series of biographies for children. (I think I've mentioned before how much I loved the biographical series in my elementary school's library. They were all bound in hideous orange. My favorite was Jane Addams: Little Lame Girl.) I thought this summation of Anne Frank's life would be easier for Mallory -- who does not like to read -- to digest than the actual diary.

I read The Diary of a Young Girl when I was...ten or eleven, maybe? And I thought it was dull, honestly, although I would like to believe I was sufficiently saddened at the end. But then in 7th grade, as part of an "Accelerated Learning" project in Language Arts, I "got" to read the play "Anne Frank." I don't remember much about the play itself, but I do remember the series of exhausting questions in my literature book that I was forced to answer. "What was the basis of the conflict between Anne and her mother? Cite three examples." "The basis of the conflict between Anne and her mother was...One example is in Act One..." It seems that I spent weeks answering these questions. It kind of turned me off Anne Frank, to be honest.

But after reading the short book I got for Mallory, I was intrigued anew. I tried without success to get the Diary for my nook; so instead I downloaded a book about the Diary, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose. This is a fascinating book; it details how the book we now know as Anne Frank's diary wasn't just the diary of a young girl; Anne actually spent a great deal of time and effort (although, what else did she have but time, while hiding in the secret anenx) revising and polishing her book into a true memoir. It relates eye-witness accounts of Anne's last days in Bergen-Belsen, which were, of course, horrifyingly awful. And it talks about how odd it is that what most people know about, or take away from, the diary is that famous line about how "in spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart." In fact, that quote is usually lifted out of context -- Anne may have believed that, but she also believed that the world could be a pretty terrible place. And even if she had believed whole-heartedly in the goodness of people -- the fact is, she was proven wrong, wasn't she? She lost two years of her life hiding in an attic; and then she was found and spent the next six months in a concentration camp; then she died a horrible death. Good people didn't make that happen.

On the other hand. Of course the last line in Mallory's dumbed-down version of Anne Frank's life is that very quote. And if that's what Mallory, for now, takes away from this story -- that there was once a girl who was persecuted through no fault of her own, but who managed to be brave and optimistic in spite of everything, and whose words have inspired other people to be more tolerant and fight against injustice and oppression -- well, actually, that's a big take-away, but if she gets even just a little bit of that -- I guess that's enough. For now.


Karen said...

I taught, or rahter tried to, the diary one year to freshmen in high school. They also found it dull - very dull. I think that they were truly horrified by her fate, but just were not interested in her observations and experiences in the actual diary. I wonder now if they were too emotionally immature to really understand and appreciate the work. So if Mallory can take away something from a "dumbed down" version, good for her. Maybe when she is exposed to it later, she will be able to appreciate it.

aimee said...

I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry when I was in college for an education class and wished that I had read that when I was a girl instead of the diary of Anne Frank. It was a good little story that had a relatively happy ending, which may be good for Mallory. I am still turned off by her diary although I do appreciate the history of that time now a lot more than I did.