A New Book From the Creator of ‘Wonder’ Tells a Holocaust Story
In an author’s note, Palacio writes that she was inspired by “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “not just as a writer, but as a person.” That “as a person” feels bold and invaluable — Palacio is not Jewish, but we all have this important book — but “as a writer” less so. The diary draws so much of its power from being told from a girl’s perspective, without the adult rationalism that can clarify fact but impoverish imagination.
That’s harder to do for an adult writer, but it’s possible. Precisely the reason that, for example, “Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa,” Peter Godwin’s great memoir of growing up in then-Rhodesia, is so transporting is that, as he writes, “I have tried not to be wise after the event but to describe things as they seemed at the time.”
“Wonder,” in fact, bristled with the exquisite idiosyncrasy of a child’s perspective — the detailed reporting on which friends live where and who’s been to whose birthday, the farting nurse! — and reminded us that it’s the “unnecessary” details that often make a story feel lived-in. And though his voice wasn’t as singular, Julian in “The Julian Chapter” was often persuasively rougher and self-congratulating than sweet Auggie.
In “White Bird,” however, Grandmère — or the author — constantly intrudes into the story that Sara, Grandmère’s girlhood self, is trying to tell, explaining what it all supposedly meant instead of rendering it in its terror and shock. “There began a very systemized campaign of anti-Jewish propaganda” that “sought to dehumanize us, turn us into hideous stereotypes,” she tells Julian.
Aside from the fact that such explanatory writing blocks the imagination, do 10-year-olds know what a “systemized campaign” is? How dehumanization and “hideous stereotypes” work together? I imagine young Sara herself would have described it more simply and chillingly. When we read “For a little while, we could be children again,” we hear an adult consciousness working, and the story we get is of a grandmother in 2019, not a girl in 1941.