Prisoner of Night and Fog
Author: Anne Blankman
Release: April 22nd 2014
Genre: Historical, Mystery, YA
#1 in the Prisoner of Night & Fog duology
Sequel: Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (#2)
In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her "uncle" Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf's, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.
Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.
Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can't stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can't help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she's been taught to believe about Jews.
As Gretchen investigates the very people she's always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?
A difficult book to review, honestly. I thought Prisoner of Night and Fog portrayed Germany in the 1930s really well for the most part, but the author commits some faux pas' that really weren't necessary and completely wiped out any illusion I had that she was truly interested in the topic of National Socialism and has done her research properly, at least for a moment.
As a German myself, I obviously know a lot about that time, since my brain has been pumped full of it in history class (naturally). As such, I am quite happy to see that Blankman did get the important facts, the ones that truly matter, right while also putting in a bit of her own fiction, making it at least a little original. The thing that I really, really liked about this novel though was that Blankman dared to portray the Germans in another light than most authors who write about National Socialism or WWII do. A lot of the people believe Hitler and his SS/SA men to have been brutal, monstrous beasts who didn't care for humans, which was not the case, and it's refreshing to see someone finally acknowledging that. There were countless SA men that were inhuman and violent towards the "subhuman" races and beat the shit out of them, gassed them mercilessly, that's all true — for the record, I am not saying their methods weren't absolutely horrific and barbaric — but most of these had families at home, and each day after the work was done they would go back to those families and be loving husbands and fathers. They weren't full-time monsters, not all of them; not even Hitler was. In fact, Hitler was extremely dedicated to his work and his people, to Germany, and he really was an extremely charismatic person who was able to sway a crowd with his charms, believe it or not. There's a reason he was elected by the Germans, because, yes, he actually got voted for. Blankman portrayed all of this perfectly, with Hitler being lovably called "Uncle Dolf" by the heroine, and with a lot of his employees being nice to Gretchen and other citizens as well, and only being cruel and rude to Jews and such.
The only thing that did bother me, I guess, was Reinhard, but I know that my issues with him were purely personal. There truly were psychopaths like him along as well, obviously, so I guess it's only fair to shed light on the seriously messed up, sadistic kinds of SS men, too, but ... I don't know. I have an older brother, and if we would have lived in the 1930s/40s, he would have been the perfect Hitler Youth boy — pure German blood and roots, nothing tainting him, tall, stocky build with Aryan features: blond and blue-eyed. He would have been the poster child for everything Hitler stood for, and I guess it just kind of messed me up seeing how Reinhard behaved and evolved over the course of the years, and I have trouble imagining my own beloved brother going through some of that. Good thing we're not living in that time period, I guess.
The characters themselves, however, were pretty bland, and mostly inaccurately portrayed, or at least I would think so. I have a hard time believing Eva Braun was really that interested in cosmetics, and her father sure as hell did not disapprove of her budding romance with Hitler, quite the opposite, really. Just, seeing all of these characters that played very important roles back then, historical figures that have always seemed so out of reach, so untouchable I could never even begin to fathom, never begin to wonder about their personalities, were handled so ... informal and casual, like it was no big deal. Everyone's there — Hitler, Eva Braun, Geli Raubal, Hanfstaengl, Röhm; the only one I kept missing was Goebbels, but then I remembered he doesn't really appear until two years later, 1933. It was simply disconcerting and threw me off a bit, to see all of these characters handled so non-chalantly, but Blankman is at fault, too, since she doesn't really make a huge effort of ever developing any of her characters except for the heroine.
Although, that she did do quite well. She firmly believes in National Socialism and supports what Uncle Dolf stands for in the beginning, and while she questions the inhumane treatment of the Jews a few times, she always reprimands herself for it, and she shies away from any interaction, physical or not, with Jews. It was, above all, accurate and appropriate for a girl like Gretchen, who is personally acquainted with Hitler and has grown up her whole life in direct contact with all of his propaganda. For that, however, I do believe she lets go of her beliefs and "prejudices" quite quickly, yes, but it wasn't too quickly, it's not until after page 200 that she really does stop having doubts, which, fine by me.
As a result, I also liked the romance well enough; at first I was really anxious it would be more of an insta-love and move way too fast, but luckily, they took it slow and carefully. I still don't see why they're attracted to each other or what they like about each other, which made it hard to really find them cute or ship them or anything, but a least they moved at a reasonable pace that I didn't disapprove of them. Maybe I will get their romance in the next book, but for now, I'm content with just not disliking them, there has been far enough of that lately. I mean, yeah, they do get a little too cheesy, throwing around "I love you" towards the end, but ... I found it was still bearable.
The last thing that remains on my list is the plot and writing, which was probably the whole reason why I had a lot of problems with the novel. The mood and atmosphere were never there, I didn't really feel like I was walking through 1930s Nazi Munich at any given time, it never clicked for me and Blankman never even truly attempts to set up the fitting atmo for it, which really ruined the whole thing a bit; made it lame and ... grey. The writing was very down to the point and crisp, like I was reading an encyclopedia, with descriptions being rattled down like job descriptions and it all sounded extremely formal, which did fit to a certain degree to the story, but it felt uncomfortable in the long run. As for the plot, I want to say it was barely there, but it was so much there that it almost consumed the whole novel. What I mean is that there's constantly talk about it, with Gretchen and Daniel always whispering urgently about how they needed to figure this and this out, talk to that and that person to get this and that info, all to figure out whether or not her father was a hero who threw himself in front of Hitler or if he was actually murdered by a comrade. There's never any progress at all up until very late in the book, they uncover absolutely nothing useful that really tips them off about the specifics of his death, and it got really freaking tedious after a while, reading about how poor Gretchen, sniffling and crying, simply needs to find out the truth, at any cost. Very dreary, and I grew tired of it quickly.
If you're here mainly for the historical portrayal, then this is your book — you'll see a side of Nazi Germany as I personally have seldom read about before in YA literature, although admittedly, I'm not crazy about the topic and as such, have not searched a whole lot for books about it. Still, I think it depicts the post-WWI misery and poverty of Germany alright, maybe enabling a better understanding of why Hitler had the ability to rise to power at all; people were tired of one failing government after the other, after the Weimar Republic had just failed and unemployment was a serious issue, with families starving and the nation humiliated after the Versailles Treaty — it was all there in the book, and while I can imagine better and more in-depth portrayals, this one wasn't bad, either. It might also help you have a better picture of the figures involved, people like Hitler or his minions, since they're so prominently featured in the book, and portrayed more or less accurately save for a few like Eva Braun (at least I thought so, I'm not the expert, though — obviously I haven't met any of these people myself, so I can't exactly tell). In the end, while I did have higher expectations, Prisoner of Night and Fog nevertheless managed to be enjoyable enough, as well as memorable in a way.
One last thing: That cover is inaccurate is heck. This story is about an Aryan girl, blond and blue-eyed, and if you remember, those looks were quite the big deal back then... Why get a brunette, green-eyed cover model then?! Ugh.