Monday, January 12, 2015

Jillian Cantor's Novel--Artful Amendment of The Diary of Anne Frank

Author Jillian Cantor’s Margot, an ambitious “what-if’ story worthy of studying by writers and savoring by readers follows a trend among some contemporary writers of offering a new “take” on a time-honored history/story. Recently, I came upon an internet discussion by a writer who has authored a modern-day love story based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—and my author friends K. R. Hughes and T. L. Burns, in their What She Knew, propose an entirely different version of the tragic death of actress Marilyn Monroe. These are only two examples among many others. The revised history in Margot is that of the esteemed true story The Diary of Anne Frank, the vivid impressions in the form of a diary, of Anne Frank, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl in Amsterdam, Holland, who with her mother, father, and sister Margot, as well as the family of their friend Peter Pelt, were forced into hiding on an upper floor of an office building for two years during the Second World War to evade capture by the Nazi Gestapo. Published in 2013, Cantor’s Margot posits that Anne Frank’s sister Margot Frank (the book’s protagonist) did not go to her death in the Nazi Concentration Camp Bergen-Belsen along with her fellow members of the household, all but her father, as reported, and instead, through a series of propitious circumstances, escaped to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America, which is the setting of the book.

                The story opens on Friday, April 3, 1959 on the heels of the release of the acclaimed motion picture of the famous diary, a feature film at a movie theater in the Center City, Philadelphia neighborhood where the protagonist lives. Working in a Jewish Law Firm as a legal secretary under an assumed identity of a Gentile named Margie Franklin, Margie/Margot lives a circumscribed life—a near recluse in a studio apartment “…containing only a blue couch, a wooden table with two chairs, a single bed, and the tiniest of kitchens,” a wall to wall area spanned by just ten of her compulsive paces, and shared with her only steady companion, an over-weight tabby named Katze, a tiny parcel of space in which she holes up every evening and weekend to partake of her only indulgence—a study of law books in her quest to become a paralegal, a mission set forth at the suggestion of her employer, attorney Joshua Rosenstein.  

Margie/Margot’s workmate and only friend Shelby does pry her loose from her furled way of life. Now and then, she acquiesces to accompany Shelby to a local establishment for a drink, “…even though I don’t drink alcohol…Last month Shelby dragged me to see Some Like It Hot…I thought the movie was fine, but I did not laugh at the places Shelby did, at Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s antics dressed as women. I still do not fully understand the American sense of humor. Hiding is hiding is hiding. What’s so funny about that?...Shelby wears a short-sleeved cotton blouse and full green skirt today, because it is April and the sun is warm enough to be without a sweater. But I still have my navy sweater on. I wear a sweater always, no matter what the temperature, so the dark ink on my forearm remains hidden, unseen.”

                This particular close-of-workday-Friday, Margie/Margot dodges Shelby’s appeal to accompany her to the movie theater to see the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank, an account “of another time, another place, one which I never wish to go back to in my mind.” She enters her apartment and visits for a while with her cat on the blue couch. “Friday nights, I always light a candle at sundown and say a silent prayer. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam…Words repeat themselves in my brain, even though Margie Franklin, she is a Gentile. My Friday prayer, it is not a religion, it’s ritual.” She fingers her unopened copy of her sister’s diary. “No I haven’t read it. I don’t want to,” she says in her mind to an imaginary query on the part of Shelby. “I put the book back on the shelf, and I reach for the phone on my small kitchen counter. I turn the dial to o…’Operator,’ a woman’s voice says on the other end. I open my mouth to ask for him. Peter Pelt, I want to tell the operator. I need to talk to Peter Pelt.

                And so, the tale begins to be revealed. By way of the author’s clever plot devices—“hiding is hiding is hiding;”…the perpetual sweater to keep “hidden, unseen” the despised tattoo; the hemmed-in habitation; the stereotypical lonely-woman’s cat; all of it works so well toward this theme of concealment. The interplay of various psychological mechanisms—survivor’s guilt; sibling rivalry; self-imposed isolation and estrangement from her father ingrained through habit and fear; low self-worth due to wrecked goals and dreams and a detoured natural life-course; despondency; grief; loss—are handled subtly, but effectively, and on a rather high key. The author somehow avoids a maudlin approach, as the subject-matter would suggest, and builds a “what-if” conclusion much more palatable and humane than the “real” history. This is an interesting read, especially for lovers of historical fiction. It is also a quick and easy study for writers of the plot techniques stated above.      

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