You can read a work of fiction without knowing a thing about the author, yet you’ll still enjoy the book. In the end, the writer’s intent may not matter so much as what you get out of it.
And yet it’s still interesting to inquire about a writer’s values.
Children the world over have grown up with Curious George, the little monkey with a nose for mischief, yet the kids are blissfully unaware about the lives of H.A. Rey and his spouse, Margret Rey. But that darned monkey! He’s a caution.
In Curious George Gets A Medal (originally published in 1957, filed with a blue dot, suggested ages 3 to 6), the little imp gets into more trouble in a mere 47 pages than any real child could manage in a month. After all, when the Man in the Yellow Hat’s away, the simian will play.
Let’s see. George leaves a gigantic puddle of ink on the office floor, then pours soap on top to clean it up, then adds a stream of water. The bubbles force George to evacuate the house. On his way find a pump to help fix the mess, he allows a pen full of pigs to escape, steals a cow (for transportation, of course – George always has logical reasons for his actions), and ends up at the museum. His attempt to grab a nut from a tree positioned in front of a plaster dinosaur results in everything getting smashed. But then the Man in the Yellow Hat arrives to save him. (The man always saves George.) And the primate’s then placed in a rocket ship, where he will be the first monkey to return to Earth after a successful space flight.
The folks who analyze literature have often frowned at H.A. Rey, whose tale of a little brown creature kidnapped from Africa by a white man could be a slave narrative.
If you knew something about the author, however, you might see Curious George differently. The Reys were Jews who fled the Nazis during World War 2 (and ended up in New York). Hans Rey grew up in Germany right next to a zoo, and loved the monkeys — who lived far from their home, just as the Reys ended up.
“The Curious George books were a true collaboration,” notes the PBS website. “Hans was generally in charge of ideas and illustrations, while Margret handled plot and writing. Many aspects of the Reys’ own interests and adventures are reflected in the images and plots of the Curious George stories. For example: Hans smoked a pipe, the couple lived among palm trees in Brazil, and they took some very important trips by both bicycle and ocean liner. In addition, Hans and Margret were very fond of animals, and their first stop whenever they visited a new city was the zoo.”
George can just as easily be seen as a stand-in for his creator.
And George always wins. He’s courageous, loves discovery, makes friends wherever he goes, and always means well, even as things tumble to the ground about him.
George was also one lone monkey. It’s so much easier for the human mind to empathize with a single life. The death of six million Jews is so overwhelming that it can barely be rationally understood. That must be why Anne Frank’s story is so compelling. Anne allows us to empathize with her hopes, loves, and fears.
Like the Reys, the Franks fled Germany. Anne and family ended up in Holland, but Hitler’s armies arrived soon after, and began (with the help of some locals) to hunt down the Jews. Anne was 13.
“How did the non-Jewish population in the Netherlands respond? Most people did not oppose the new restrictions. Some were afraid of the German reaction. Others didn’t think the measures were serious enough to risk defying. Most just hoped the war would soon be over,” notes the introduction to the classic book, Anne Frank: Diary Of A Young Girl (1947/1993, filed with a green dot at 920, in children’s non-fiction).
Anne goes from writing about schoolwork in her new diary, a birthday gift in June 1942, to mentioning that schools are being segregated, Jews are banned from owning businesses and driving cars, and they are allowed to shop only from 3 to 5 p.m. The family goes into hiding a month later, living with a second family behind a hidden wall in an office building. Former coworkers bring them food.
After two years of living as ghosts, they are betrayed, arrested, and sent to concentration camps. Only Anne’s father, Otto, survived. The book Anne Frank: Beyond The Diary, A Photographic Remembrance (1995, by Rian Verhoeven and Ruud van der Rol, with a green dot at 920), offers a solid overview of the Franks and the war. It can be read alone or in conjunction with the diary.
The gentiles who helped the Franks hide made choices, knowing that helping Jews meant putting their own lives at risk. (Two company employees were arrested along with the Franks; both survived the camps.)
Jews also had choices to make. But most countries refused entry to Jewish refugees – and sent them back. Including Canada.
“Canada’s immigration policy was among the most antisemitic of all Western nations. After 1923, Jews were only admitted to Canada if they were British or American, if they had close family in Canada, or if they could muster the political influence necessary to get a rarely issued entry permit.”
In 1930, a European conference on Jewish refugees was held. Canada sent a representative to ensure that we would not be required to take in any Jews. (Five years later, Germany stripped Jews of their citizenship.)
Later, Britain arrested thousands of Jewish “enemy aliens”. Canada accepted a few thousand shipped here by boat and housed them in prisons, including one in Sherbrooke called Camp N. “Canadian military officials at the docks… were armed and prepared for the arrival of dangerous parachutists and spies. Instead they were baffled by the sight of teenagers… and Jews that disembarked.” (This is from the just-ended exhibit on Camp N at the Société d’histoire de Sherbrooke.)
Imprisoned but alive, these “enemy aliens” made their own decisions about how to cope with their lot. They taught themselves music and literature.
And they were at times treated decently, and at times not.
The jailor also makes choices.
– Eleanor Brown, April 18, 2014