I always think it’s more than a little daring for an author to attempt writing historical fiction featuring real people whose lives are heavily documented. Yet that’s exactly what Anne Blankman does in her novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog, which is also a debut – and all the more impressive for it. Her efforts are resoundingly successful and make for a gripping, devastating audiobook, narrated excellently by Heather Wilds.
The risks in writing this kind of historical novel are many. Because the characters’ lives are so well-known, there could be little room for embellishment or imagination on the part of the author. Yet it’s the embellishment – the filling in of the blanks – that makes historical fiction so enticing to many readers. What can an author do when there aren’t many blanks to fill in? By sticking strictly to the historical record, she tells a story the reader could find by browsing the nonfiction section of the library – and that’s not what historical fiction readers are looking for. But by creating something new, she risks making the story unbelievable for the reader, who would know for a fact that events did not unfold as described.
Blankman’s strategy is to create a wholly fictional character in her protagonist, Gretchen Muller, and surround her with real people from history, most prominently Adolf Hitler. Hitler is not merely a person seen from afar, as happens in many historical novels set in this time and place; he is a vital, terrifying secondary character, one who interacts regularly with Gretchen and helps propel the story forward. To Gretchen, Hitler is her “Uncle Dolf,” a man revered by her whole family. Several years ago, Gretchen’s father died as a martyr to the National Socialists when he jumped in front of a bullet meant for Hitler. Since then, “Uncle Dolf” has looked out for Gretchen and her family, giving them a position of social prominence and a measure of safety in uncertain 1931 Munich.
One day, Gretchen is approached by a young man named Daniel Cohen who tells her that her father’s murder is not what it seems. Initially, Gretchen resists the idea, both because she believes in her father’s sacrifice and because Daniel is a Jew. She is, after all, a good little National Socialist in training.
But her hesitancy doesn’t last long. Gretchen is a sympathetic character, so naturally her aversion to Jewish people erodes until it’s gone completely, and she and Daniel begin a sweet romance that provides a nice subplot to the main story. This puts her in conflict with her “Uncle Dolf” as well as her many friends among the Nazis, but most particularly her older brother, Reinhard, a sadist and sociopath. Reinhart is perhaps even more terrifying than Hitler is, partly because his crimes are more readily apparent (at this point) and partly because he is closer to her. Reinhard’s actions spur Gretchen to learn more about pyschology while investigating her father’s death, and this subplot dovetails nicely with Gretchen’s revelations about her Uncle Dolf.
Other real people make appearances in the story. Eva Braun is Gretchen’s best friend, and Hitler’s real-life niece Geli Raubal is another acquaintance of hers. Hitler’s allies also make frequent appearances and interact with Gretchen, including Ernst Rohm and Rudolf Hess.
This is a dark, moody, and mostly humorless story. It’s frequently terrifying, both overtly when Reinhard commits acts of violence against Jews and against his sister, and less visibly, during Gretchen’s conversations with Hitler, where much is intimated but never spoken plainly. Much of the terror comes from the fact that we as readers know what Gretchen does not: that soon Hitler will conquer much of Europe and act as the catalyst for the massacre of millions of people. Wilds narrates the book’s dialogue with a German accent, which lends authenticity to the story and makes for a truly immersive listening experience.
I was so looking forward to the author’s note at the end of the book, which I hoped would explain exactly where fact met fiction (so essential in historical fiction featuring real people). Alas, the audiobook version did not include it, though I know the print version does. Sure, I can look the people up on Wikipedia, but that’s no match for the research done by the author, which is more in-depth, interesting, and specific to the story being told than an encyclopedia article could ever be. Audiobook producers: We want the author’s note. There’s no harm in including it; if other readers are bored by it, they’ll simply stop the recording and move on with their lives. But I’m certain that would be rare. Readers who seek out historical fiction – teens included – want that extra information, believe me.
Audiobook borrowed from my local library.