When I was 14, I was into the whole idea of diaries and journals. Of course I kept one myself, and whenever I could find books about people who kept diaries, all the better. So imagine my glee at discovering Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. I'd never heard of her, and I knew little about the Holocaust (my dad was a WWII veteran, but in the Pacific battles, so that's mainly what I'd heard about). Frank's diary had a huge impact on me; for months it was all I read. I'd read from beginning to end, then turn back to the beginning and start over. So many things played into my obsession: a young girl, my age, living under those horrendous circumstances; the brutal ending; the diary-keeping itself; and the fact that, in spite of the living conditions, she still felt like I felt as a teenage girl, decades later. One of the worst moments of my high school life was not getting a role when the drama club performed the play. So unfair. I would have been the perfect Anne, I just knew it.
Frank's book has long been treated as a historical document, which of course it is. But Francine Prose makes a case for viewing it as a literary document as well, in her new book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife.
She argues--very convincingly--that readers are experiencing the rise of what could have been a major literary talent, and at a very young age. What's more--and I didn't know this, and found it so interesting--after hearing a radio speech that talked about publishing documents after the war, Anne became determined that her diary, up until then a private record, could be such a document. She didn't intend to publish it as the Diary of a Young Girl, but as Het Achterhuis (literally, the "house behind"). To that end, she began revising the earlier parts of the diary. The originally published form used her revisions rather than the original diary entries, but as Prose compares and contrasts, it's clear just what an astonishing leap Frank made in terms of her writing abilities in those two short years, and with what clear, professional eyes she viewed the reviewing process.
Prose goes on to examine how the book found its way into print, including the wonderful story of legendary editor Judith Jones finding it in a rejection pile, flipping through it, then reading it, unable to put it down. Prose also looks at issues that arose during and after publication, not the least of which was the obsessive Meyer Levin's determination to bring it to stage, as long as it was his telling, and the road from book to stage to screen. She discusses in detail the effect that both the play and movie had by using the now-iconic line, "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart!" as a dramatic finale. In essence, she argues, it softens the blow that Frank's death should have had.
But the diaries did their share of good as well, not only in highlighting that part of the war, but in teaching lessons about anti-Semitism and racism in general. Prose illustrates how groups in countries as disparate as Russia and Guatemala are using the text to teach tolerance and understanding, a legacy Frank surely would have appreciated.
This is an excellent book, filled both with passion and with meticulous documentation. Prose has done a great service to Frank's work, and best of all, it's causing me to revisit this long-ago favorite of mine.