Sisterhood Blog

PBS's Anne Frank and the Heroine Canon

By Sarah Seltzer

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Darlow Smithson
Ellie Kendrick as Anne Frank (click to enlarge)

There’s been a lot of fantastic Web writing around this week’s PBS premiere of a brand new version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” (see the Forward’s interview with star Ellie Kendrick here). On PBS’s blog, Remotely Connected, author and researcher Alexandra Zapruder, who compiled a collection of Jewish children’s Holocaust journals, wrote about the mystery of Anne Frank’s diary ascending to immortality, while dozens of other Holocaust-era children’s diaries have gone out of print. When she embarked on the project, Zapruder felt that this was unfair. As she watched the film, however, Zapruder answered her own question.

Because Anne Frank is Anne Frank, that’s why. Because of the place she holds in our imaginations and our culture. Because her story is a long, rich, complex narrative that rises and falls, and carries us with it. Because her voice is intimate, contradictory, youthful, wise, and earnest. That’s why.

In the opinion of this young writer ,who embraced Anne Frank’s diary with great ferocity, reading it twice in primary school alone, Frank’s iconic status has a twofold reason beyond what Zapruder correctly identifies.

First is simply the principle of distilling a tragedy into a relatable story. Anne Frank has become the entry point into the horrors of the Holocaust to many people for whom numbers like six million are too unfathomable to understand, for whom gas chambers and smokestacks are too gruesome to seem real.

But along with that obvious point, there’s a more subtle one. For many young readers around the world, Anne Frank fits perfectly into the “heroine canon,” a long list of young adult and classic adult novels with feisty, introspective women at their core. Frank’s diary is passed into girls’ hands in between young adult novels like “Anne of Green Gables,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Little Women” and adult novels with comparable heroines such as “Jane Eyre,” “Pride and Prejudice” even “Anna Karenina.”

Frank shares many of the qualities of the aforementioned protagonists; she is witty and precocious and improbably, piercingly observant. She struggles to be docile and feminine like her older sister is (talk about a common literary trope!), and her wild, wise nature comes into conflict with the fussbudgety adults around her. Most importantly, she is able to escape from her miserable existence through the power of a soaring imagination.

Its almost as if Frank was written by L.M Montgomery or Frances Hodgson Burnett. But she’s realer than our fictional friends, a character come to life, without the treacly bits and certainly without the mandatory happy ending. In that way, she is not just a piece of the Holocaust. Crucially she’s also a piece of our lives, as readers and as people, that was destroyed by the Holocaust. That helps to explain her enduring symbolic power.


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