Putting a human face to tragic history in The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill A Mockingbird

Perspective is everything. Oftentimes, it makes the book what it is. Consider The Diary of Anne Frank. The Diary of Anne Frank is often considered a literary exemplar that stands for the atrocities during the Holocaust. It is taught in high school classes and served up as examples on CAHSEE, alongside history lessons of World War II, Hitler and Nazis, serving as a primary source or historical document to study and understand the lives of Jewish people in war-torn Europe. Yet, the deeper power of the book lies in its personal narrative formed by a relatively normal teenage girl with parent troubles and boy crushes, yet who comes of age in a world where her ethnicity forces her to hide from plain view.

Anne’s self-focused diary gives readers a deeper sense of the subjective emotional lives that endured during the Holocaust, doing something a objective history book can hardly do. Through her personal diary entries, Anne emerges as a character relatable to every young female girl across time, space and even ethnicities. For Anne, her teenaged emotions and feelings about isolation, mortality, identity, family and even love help mirror the happenings of the world while also helping frame readers’ notions about life in Nazi-occupied Holland. Her perspective humanizes the staggering genocide statistics and turns such xenophobic rhetoric and hate perpetuated by the Nazi regime on its head, endlessly contradicting such dehumanization as needed. If Anne had been a boy, we as readers may not have the same perspective and emotions about boys, family and growing up that filter the War for us. Perhaps the diary would be more focused on the happenings of war or primarily recording the historical events that we get glimpses of through Anne’s radio-listening scenes. This is not to say that a male writer is inadequate in depicting emotional upheaval, suffering, or injustice. John Steinbeck’s succinct book Of Mice and Men powerfully describes the emotional and material deprivation faced by migrant workers during the Great Depression. Lord of the Flies, which is about a group of boys stranded on an uninhabited, uncivilized land, employs the poignancy of their youth to bring attention to the horror of war and the degeneration of humanity that it brings. However, viewing historically tense and atrocious moments in history through the perspective of young girls gives stories a unique sense of empathy, detail and emotion.

Though it is primarily a work of fiction, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird operates in a very similar way—albeit an intentional way— that the The Diary of Anne Frank does. Our narrator is another young girl, Scout, coming up in the South during the 1930s, when racism, violence and Jim Crowe laws were so commonplace that to go against it marked one as a target, like Scout’s lawyer father Atticus. The novel tells the story about an African-American man named Tom Robinson falsely accused of raping a white woman through the eyes of a little girl coming to terms with the world and its unfairness. As in The Diary of Anne Frank, the historical and racial undertones bubble up through Scout’s first-person ruminations on growing up and becoming a woman in a world where anyone but white men are considered weaker and inferior. Scout’s outsider perspective on the racial injustices unfolding before her also serves to humanize and even moralize America’s own controversial history with racism and xenophobic violence and discrimination, which is why the book is often recommended to AP US History students.

Though both books are richly complex and historically distinctive in their own right, they are similar in purpose. While Anne did not intend for her personal diary to become a published book, her father made it so and in doing so, we enter the mind of an adolescent girl attempting to grasp the ever-changing, violent and fearful world around her—much like Scout. Though to Kill a Mockingbird takes place in an entirely different place and time, the themes and commonplaces between the two books are there. There is injustice, racism, violence, discrimination, oppression, witch-hunting, even coming to terms with one’s one femininity. One is hiding in midst of one of history’s most atrocious genocides in fear for their lives while the other is forced to the peripheries at times (such as watching Tom’s racist rape trial from the balcony). Yet, by viewing such historical and tragic events through the relatively naïve eyes of young girls, we get a different picture—one that is acutely sensitive to the happenings around them while also putting a human face to the historical record. Sometimes, it takes a young girl to help us see the real picture.

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