Sharon Dog­ar
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011

Who real­ly was Peter van Pels — artist, adven­tur­er, dream­er, rebel or just a fif­teen- year-old boy who wants to expe­ri­ence life to the fullest, from hav­ing a girl­friend to shar­ing his artis­tic tal­ent with the rest of the world? This bold and ambi­tious sweep­ing saga, con­sid­ered to be a com­pan­ion piece to The Diary of a Young Girl, is emo­tion­al­ly raw and grip­ping as it flesh­es out the sto­ry of Anne Frank and her com­pan­ions in the Annex from Peter’s perspective. 

Told in diary for­mat, this title traces the heart wrench­ing fate of Peter and his par­ents, who join the Frank fam­i­ly in hid­ing in an Ams­ter­dam attic on July 13, 1942, and were forced to stay there for two years. Peter feels help­less that he is con­fined to such cramped cor­ri­dors, espe­cial­ly with know-it-all Anne, and longs to be on the out­side fight­ing the Nazis. Author Dog­ar skill­ful­ly reimag­ines” the rela­tion­ships between the two fam­i­lies, and here is where her cre­ativ­i­ty takes full force; while stay­ing true to the well known his­tor­i­cal facts high­light­ed in Anne’s famous diary, she retells the account of the Annex through Peter’s eyes. 

Although the writ­ing is pow­er­ful and at times poet­ic, the style is sim­ple and straight­for­ward, much like how a boy of six­teen would express him­self. Peter con­tem­plates issues of ado­les­cence and the pas­sage to man­hood that most teens, espe­cial­ly boys, will eas­i­ly iden­ti­fy with, such as lack of pri­va­cy, frus­tra­tion with his par­ents snoop­ing and his bud­ding sex­u­al­i­ty. While at first Peter finds Anne annoy­ing, chat­ty, and insult­ing, over time he finds solace in her com­pa­ny that grows into a ten­ta­tive romance; their con­ver­sa­tions are com­bat­ive, poignant and com­pelling. At one point Anne accus­es Peter of desert­ing his peo­ple and he des­per­ate­ly laments, I want so many things, but what I need is to know who I am. Because if I don’t know that, I can only ever be what they say I am. A Jew.” 

Through Peter, the read­er expe­ri­ences a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive of Anne as well as reveal­ing truths about him­self. An intrigu­ing fram­ing device that moves the sto­ry for­ward is Peter’s fate after his time in hid­ing; the Annex fam­i­ly is betrayed in 1945 and Peter is tak­en away to Mau­thausen, a con­cen­tra­tion camp in Aus­tria where it is almost impos­si­ble to sur­vive on the mea­ger diet and dif­fi­cult labor. In a stream of con­scious man­ner and writ­ten in ital­ics, are hor­rif­ic reports of Peter’s last days as he fights for his life. 

The sto­ry actu­al­ly begins in the future and goes back in time, inter­spers­ing moments in the camp with Peter’s diary account, until past becomes present and Peter is left with Mr. Frank to hope­ful­ly wait for lib­er­a­tion of the camps. Each short chap­ter of the diary entries begins with a head­line that includes the date and place in bold, cap­i­tal let­ters that help give order to the non-lin­ear telling of the annexed years. A thought pro­vok­ing epi­logue pro­vides the read­er with his­tor­i­cal, inti­mate facts of the fate of the oth­er mem­bers in hid­ing and is well round­ed out by a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books and web­sites that will sati­ate fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion of the Holo­caust and Anne Frank’s legacy. 

This excep­tion­al mul­ti-lay­ered title is a tour de force and a superb addi­tion to any Holo­caust col­lec­tion. While some of the details of Peter’s time in Auschwitz are a bit gru­el­ing, this pow­er­ful retelling of the Annex should not be missed. For ages 14 and up.

Debra Gold has been a children’s librar­i­an for over 20 years in the Cuya­hoga Coun­ty Pub­lic Library Sys­tem. An active mem­ber of the ALA, she has served on many com­mit­tees includ­ing the Calde­cott, New­bery and Batchelder committees.

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