Fiction — print. Puffin, 2001. 291 pgs. Purchased.
The “me” in the title is American teenager Nicole Burns, who blogs about her frustrations with school, her inability to measure up to the ideal body or as the ideal student and daughter that her sister Elizabeth (known as Little Bit or LB on the blog) seems to be, and her infatuation with her classmate Jack (known as J on the blog) under the penname “Girl X”.
“Frightening Thought du Jour: We are teen rodents of civilization, destined to run through a suburban maze at the end of which is the processed cheese: a life just as boring as our parents’.” (pg. 3)
Such issues and infatuations make it impossible for her to pay attention in class to the guest speaker – a Holocaust survivor named Paulette – or find time to actually read Anne Frank’s Diary. Like most teens who do not complete their required reading, Nicole googles the book looking for a summary and instead discovers a website run by an “expert” claiming the diary was falsified.
Nicole plans to share her research with her father during dinner in order to show that she is going above and beyond with her homework assignments, but the arrival of Jack at her house and his request to sit next to her on school bus tomorrow puts the idea out of her head. Nicole’s plans to discuss her seat-sharing in depth with her best friend, Mimi, during their field trip to an exhibit on Anne Frank are interrupted when gunfire erupts and, in the stampede to get out of the museum, Nicole is trampled.
When she awakens, Nicole is informed she is actually Nicole Burnstein, a young Jewish girl living in Paris during the Nazi occupation of the city. Her teacher is now her mother; her little sister is now called “Liz Bette”. Mimi and Jack — known as Jacques — are brother and sister in this alternate universe, but Nicole is most elated to learn J, who is not Jewish, is her boyfriend, a relationship that begins to struggle as the Nazis begin persecuting the Jews of Paris. As the title suggests, Nicole eventually meets Anne Frank as well as a young, Jewish girl named Paulette.
“Frightening Thought du Jour: Sometimes when you’re dreaming, it feels real. But if you’re trapped in a dream — really trapped — how do you know if you’re really dreaming at all?” (pg. 79)
If this is not the very first book I read about the Holocaust, then at the very least it is the first to have a profound emotional impact on me. I can remember speaking peeks at the book during math class, staying up until the wee hours to finish it, and bursting into tears near the end. Even now, when I know how the story ends, I still held my breath as I reached the conclusion.
Bennett and Gottesfeld’s novel is the book I would recommend as a good way of introducing the topic of the Holocaust to middle school students. Although Nicole is in high school, I think many of the issues she deals with — a first crush, struggling friendships, problems with school, fights with siblings — are already or about to be experienced by these students, and I continue to find her to be a very relatable character even though I have been out of both middle and high school for some time now. (I suppose people could be concerned about introducing the topic of school shootings to younger readers, but I began practicing for such events by at least the third grade.)
The novel addresses the Holocaust in a very factual way engaging in neither detailed descriptions of life in the concentration camps nor liberties with the experiences of Parisian Jews transported to such camps. The emotional impact of the novel is built by focusing on the restrictions Nicole faces as a Jew — no longer being able to ride her bicycle, being told she cannot sit with her friends at a restaurant — that, in my belief, make it easy for readers to imagine themselves in such situations.
Of course, this dream (for lack of a better word) is what the novel is built upon, but I think it is easier to imagine being excluded from a friend group since nearly everyone has experienced such an event than being confined in an annex. And I also greatly appreciate how the novel addresses Holocaust denial, which is rarely mentioned in such novels for adult.
Rereading the novel as an adult, I wish the school shooting subplot and one character in particular had been handled better in the novel. But the emotional impact and the resonance of the story has not changed over the years, and I cannot recommend this novel enough.