Fiction about Real People: Some Thoughts Related to Sharon Dogar’s Annexed

Sharon Dogar’s Annexed has been testing me personally.  A work of historical fiction, Dogar sensitively and thoughtfully imagines what Peter Van Pels, the boy in Anne Frank’s final hidden home, felt and thought and did.  The reviews have been glowing and I appreciate them all as I do her artistic right to write the book. Yet I found the book an impossible one to read fairly. I tried and tried, but as I read it I was unable to let go in Dogar’s imagined world.  My family, my childhood connection to Anne’s diary, and my feelings about writing fiction about real people all kept getting in the way.

My problem begins with my own history. While my grandmother and father may have left Frankfurt, Germany in 1936, our family history remains —- say my great-grandfather’s Edinger Institut or the street named after my great grandmother.  My grandfather didn’t leave and was killed, but my father didn’t hold a grudge against his homeland. He became a specialist in Germany politics and I spent big chunks of my childhood in Germany.

And then there is the diary. Before we left for a year in Germany when I was eleven, my grandmother gave me The Diary of Anne Frank and a blank-but-old-looking diary. A few months later at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam I realized that mine was very similar to Anne’s, brought by my grandmother from Germany close to when Anne was writing hers.  Because of that, because I was so close to Anne’s age then, because I could identify with her assimilated German Jewish background, because she was clever and funny and a great writer … Anne’s diary became a touchstone book for me.

And so while I was intrigued by the idea of giving voice to Peter Van Pels, taking someone whom we only know about through Anne and make him his own person, when it came to actually reading Dogar’s imagining of his voice, I struggled.  It made me enormously uncomfortable to read the fictional Peter’s very intimate thoughts and experiences.  It felt intrusive.  He was a real person and we don’t know, can’t know,  what he thought and felt.  I thought of my father.  He hated it when academics speculated about his family in articles and books so I can only imagine his response to a fictional speculation about someone like Peter.

Would I feel this way about a real person that didn’t mean so much to me personally?  Good question.  It so happens that I’ve been working on the story of another real person — Sarah Margu Kinson, a child on the Amistad. Feeling that I had no business imagining how she felt I tried for years to tell her story as nonfiction, but it didn’t work — there wasn’t enough about her to do it. So I finally, gingerly, moved into fiction. I went from third person to first person.  I fictionalized a true story.  Using everything I could find to help me, I made-up some of her thoughts and feelings.  I wrote historical fiction. And since I’ve done this I absolutely respect others who do so too.

Sharon Dogar wanted to give Peter Van Pels a voice of his own and created a work of fiction that is powerful, heartfelt and well written. That I can’t read it without squirming is my problem not hers.

Also at the Huffington Post.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Fiction about Real People: Some Thoughts Related to Sharon Dogar’s Annexed

  1. “That I can’t read it without squirming is my problem not hers.”

    I love this point of final understanding, Monica. I think it speaks to the basic truth about books: no book is going to make all readers happy, or be approved of by all readers. Each book is intended only for those readers who *can* be reached by it.

    So often a reader for whom a book does not work blames the book for it, rather than understanding that, simply, the book is not right for them, while others will feel differently.

  2. Monica, I love this thoughtful post.

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