Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman
Series: Prisoner of Night and Fog, #1
Published: 2014, Balzer + Bray
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
A dull buzzing sounds in her ears. If she and her people were mistaken about the Jews, then they were mistaken about everything. Without that screw, the entire machine would eventually break down. She felt a sob rise in her throat, and had to swallow it down. Uncle Dolf and Papa couldn’t be wrong, could they?
The past decade has been a pretty charmed one for Gretchen Müller. After witnessing first-hand the hunger, insecurity, and hopelessness that pervaded the German people following its defeat in World War I, Gretchen’s family started regaining hope through the efforts of the up-and-coming National Socialist Party, led by her father’s war comrade. Their loyalty to this new party came at a cost - her father’s life - but, ever since Gretchen’s father died in service to Adolf Hitler, the Müllers have been take care of and respected. Gretchen lovingly refers to Hitler as her uncle and is proud to support his causes.
Until suddenly she finds that she’s not. Her awakening starts with the sight of her brother and his friend brutally attacking a Jewish man simply for being present, and continues as she meets a young Jewish reporter and realizes that he isn’t all that different from her after all. Soon Gretchen realizes that all the truths she’s held dear are little more than a lie, and she’s determined to no longer contribute to the National Socialist Party’s cause. But deciding to rebel is one thing - actually rebelling is a whole other challenge.
One aspect that I consistently love in books is the idea of retelling historical events from a new perspective, giving them a new slant. Historical fiction is a fascinating genre, but one that by and large seems to rely on the same sorts of events and the same people, providing little new information to the readers. The events leading up to World War II and the National Socialist regime under Adolf Hitler aren’t new material by any means, but it was fascinating to see history through a slightly altered (and, yes, slightly fictionalized) new lens. Gretchen feels comfortable in the new world being established for her, and perfectly idealizes the Aryan girl.
Witnessing Gretchen’s transformation from unquestioning passivity to full-out rebellion makes for a powerful reading experience. As much as we all decry the evils of the National Socialist Party, how many of us would have fallen for their propaganda, at least initially? Gretchen is very much a product of the society she was raised in; that’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but it is entirely expected. To have Gretchen consciously aware of the bed of lies upon which the Nazi Party stood would have felt forced at best, unbelievable at worst.
That’s not to say Prisoner of Night and Fog provides a perfect depiction of Gretchen’s loss of innocence. While I appreciated Blankman’s attempts to portray Gretchen as a typical Aryan girl, fully believing in the truths that the National Socialist Party espoused, her transformation does suspend disbelief. Once Gretchen sees the unprovoked attack of an innocent Jewish man, the veil of Nazi lies falls a bit too quickly from her eyes. What little internal struggle she has to make sense of everything is too quick, too easily made on her part.
It’s not easy to realize your entire life is based on lies. Gretchen struggles with the implications her newly acquired knowledge, of course, but she’s immune to any sort of vacillation that should be typical to those whose entire worldviews have shifted. There’s no question in her mind that this is wrong, not really. Don’t get me wrong - I prefer to cheer for my protagonists. I just wish her struggle had felt a little more complex.
Complex, and not entirely guided by the strummings of first love. I really enjoyed Daniel, loyal, passionate Daniel. And I liked how he helped open Gretchen’s eyes to the truth. Their relationship felt a bit too all-encompassing, given the lives they’d led so far, however.
The convenience of Gretchen’s transformation and her relationship with Daniel could have been better handled, perhaps, but Prisoner of Night and Fog is still an impressively rendered work of historical fiction. It addresses many typical topics about the rise of the National Socialist Party, and some that aren’t quite as expected. There’s a discourse on mental illnesses and psychopaths that is truly fascinating. And horrifying. Blankman has a fantastic and informative note on her research and additional historical facts at the end of the novel; even if you don’t typically read those notes, I encourage you to read this one.
Despite issues that I had with Gretchen’s characterization, Prisoner of Night and Fog is worth a read. Blankman’s portrayals of life for Hitler and the National Socialist Party, of young German girls like Gretchen, of Jews like Daniel, can help readers better establish an understanding of everything that led up to the events of World War II and the Holocaust. I will be back for the sequel.
Rating: 3.5 stars