Review Detail4.2 2
Wow. I am in awe of how amazing this novel is, let alone for a debut. Anne Blankman’s Prisoner of Night and Fog is a book I had high expectations for, but it left them all in the dust. Truly, I couldn’t conceive of the book being this amazing, but Prisoner of Night and Fog hits every note beautifully: the writing, the plot, the concept, the history, and the characters. This is a book you’re going to see me talking about a lot, and will no doubt be on my lists of favorite books at the year’s end. Anne Blankman debuts with a heartbreaking, psychologically-compelling, dark and beautiful novel set during the Weimar Republic era as Hitler rises to power.
Blankman, as most historical novelists do, ends the book with Author’s Notes, which briefly get into the research done and how the history differed from the fictional account. Though I generally don’t read any extra material in books, I make an exception for these Author’s Notes, because I love hearing about all the work that went into the novel and their assessment on history versus fiction. They also always inspire me to read a bit more history, though I usually don’t follow through. I will be adding some of Blankman’s recommendations on Goodreads, however.
The Weimar Republic era has always been one of my favorites to study. The Weimar government was actually a pretty good one, but, strapped with war reparations, had no recourse but to print more money to pay them, which resulted in rampant inflation. The German people were starving and looking for a way out or someone to blame. Into this vacuum comes Adolf Hitler. The political dynamics and timing play out in a way that bring all of this about, and I think the interplay is fascinating. Fiction tends to focus more often on WWI and WWII, so I was thrilled that an author delved into the meaty time between the wars.As fascinating as WWII is, considering the steps that lead to the outbreak of another world war so soon after the first is even more compelling for me.
The heroine of Prisoner of Night and Fog is Gretchen Müller. She is a Nazi and thinks of Hitler as Uncle Dolf. Her family has been close with his ever since her father sacrificed his life to protect Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Gretchen’s father died and became a martyr of the Nazi cause. Because of this, Hitler watches out for the Müllers. Blankman does a really good job of capturing life for Gretchen before her eyes are opened to what’s happening. Until someone informs her that there’s more to her father’s death, Gretchen never questions Hitler or his beliefs. It doesn’t occur to her that she should question them.
Portraying Hitler as solely a creepy and evil figure would be easy to do, but Blankman goes further and captures his many sides. Part of the reason Hitler rose to power was that he was charismatic; he was good at making people believe him. His speeches were compelling and he put a lot of thought into his actions. He was a skilled manipulator, so skilled that many didn’t even know that he was manipulating them. There’s a really powerful scene in Prisoner of Night and Fog where Gretchen has begun to suspect Hitler is not the sweet man she thought he was, but, even so, hearing him orate, she finds herself falling into the sway of his ideas. The Hitler depicted in Prisoner of Night and Fog is all the more fearsome a villain for these skills and his ability to mask what he is.
Blankman sets up a perfect comparison to Adolf Hitler in the form of Reinhard, Gretchen’s older brother. Reinhard has enlisted with the SA, and he’s a success there, since he’s a brutal person. Though I’ve not taken much psychology, Reinhard is a clear-cut case, a classic pscyhopath. He’s terrorized Gretchen all of her life and, in a lot of ways, he’s more terrifying than Hitler in Gretchen’s personal story. Blankman considers the psychological aspects of these figures, which is eerie and upsetting, but makes for a very thought-provoking and powerful read.
Gretchen’s eyes are opened to the truth of the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler by Daniel Cohen, a young Jewish reporter. Daniel is an immediate shock to her sensibilities, so different from what she’s been told Jews are. I pretty much picture him as Max from the film version of The Book Thief. Daniel’s a wonderful figure and I really adore their romance. At the same time, though, I love that Prisoner of Night and Fog really isn’t about Daniel. He presents her with the impetus to get moving, but this is her journey. She takes the biggest risks, does her own research, and makes choices for herself. Nothing she does is because of a boy; it’s all for her. She doesn’t believe what Daniel says because he says it, but because the evidence of Hitler’s own treatment of her and a closer investigation of Hitler’s own words makes it clear that Daniel’s words are true.
Gretchen Müller is an amazing heroine. She lives every day in circumstances under which I would crumble. Even before Prisoner of Night and Fog begins, she’s been navigating life with her psychopathic brother and a mother who refuses to acknowledge the danger Reinhard presents. As the novel unfolds, Gretchen bears everything so well. She’s terrified constantly, but she always keeps thinking and doing her best. She doesn’t always follow the wisest course, but she does what she feels is right unerringly.
The Final Verdict:
The short version? Read this book. I hope you love it as much as I do. I also hope I don’t have to wait too long for Blankman’s next novel, because I need it.