Who betrayed Anne Frank?
A novel imagines the desperation and regret of a boy trying to do right.
After a certain point, and if you're the creative sort, the only way to engage with a myth, perhaps, is to rewrite it.
It has been done before – with Moby Dick, Huck Finn, and even with Anne Frank. We have novels imagining a surviving Anne Frank living in New England, or a surviving Peter van Pels, who shared the "secret annex" and an adolescent romance with Frank, living in New York. We even have a novel about the war from the perspective of Anne Frank's cat.
Richard Lourie's A Hatred for Tulips, on the other hand, turns the Anne Frank story, and the country in which it occurs, upside down. This slim book, Lourie's fifth novel, pivots on a simple, burning question: Who betrayed Anne Frank?
The story begins with two brothers meeting for the first time since the end of World War II, when their mother left her husband to run off with a Canadian soldier – and younger son Willem – to America. Willem has come to Amsterdam to find Joop and learn what happened during the war. Joop envies his "lucky American brother, who has so few bad memories that he had to come all the way to Holland to get some."
This is not – despite the cover art and the plot teaser – a book about Anne Frank. It is, rather, a book about sibling rivalry and surviving circumstance.
At first, Joop is a carefree boy trying to earn his father's love and respect. Then twin brothers are born, stealing their parents' attention. Soon, the Nazis come, too. Joop's uncle joins the Dutch Nazi Party.
Joop tries to play a prank on the Nazis and prove his bravery to his father, but his uncle catches him. Angered at the risk of the stunt, Joop's father withdraws from his son. Then the Amsterdam he knows begins to shut him out, too: "It used to be that Amsterdamers were proud to have passersby look into their houses," Joop says. "But all windows were now covered with blackout paper.... People weren't proud of their houses and the lives they were leading in them anymore, and so the houses seemed to be turning away from the street."
In this cold, new Amsterdam, Joop looks for work wherever he can find it. He gives the money he earns to his father, hoping the money will bring him respect. Eventually he lands regular work in a warehouse and earns extra cash on the side by making "private deliveries" for the owner: Joop crosses town with vegetables hidden in his backpack, dropping them off at the homes of people hiding Jews.
When summer comes, and his backpack looks conspicuous, Joop hatches a new plan: His uncle – who lost his legs in an accident at the Russian front – now rides in a wheelchair where the vegetables can be concealed. But when the warehouse owner learns that the uncle fought with the Germans, he fires Joop. Meanwhile, his father falls ill. A good diet is his only chance including, the doctor says, eggs every day – while the family eats tulip bulbs to survive. "He could have just as well said, Eat diamonds."
With no work, the only way to afford eggs, Joop's uncle suggests, is to turn in hiding Jews, for whom the Nazis will pay. The first and only group they betray is the Frank family.
The present-day narration, and the post-war musings on Anne Frank, reach too far, philosophically and narratively, to match the rest of the book. It is where Lourie borrows the conceit of memoir and mingles an adult and child's voice that the story is most intimate: "It was great knocking about Amsterdam those couple of days" after the Dutch went on strike to protest a roundup of Jews. "Everyone was out and excited, but then the Germans started executing people and everyone went back to work."
Lourie's novel is more than a mystery: at its heart is not only Anne Frank's history, but all of Holland's. Joop derides the Dutch for indulging what, until recently, was a very real Anne Frank amnesia. "Three quarters of Holland's Jews go to their deaths," he says, "but thanks to Anne Frank, the country has a reputation for resistance, humanitarianism."
Joop is comforted, after reading Anne's published diary, to learn that his deliveries helped feed the Franks. "I helped her live, not only die," he says. Like his countrymen, he, too, needed to see another side of the story.
Ironically, the book is best where it has little to say about Anne Frank. The connection allows Lourie to pose interesting questions about collaboration and guilt during the war, but it rings truest as a story about a boy, in a difficult family, in a difficult time, and the unintended consequences of trying to do what looks like the right thing.
• Jina Moore is a Monitor intern.