What Could Have Been: Re-writing History with Jillian Cantor, author of MARGOT

Posted by October 2nd, 2013

MARGOT, a recent Riverhead book by Jillian Cantor, is a historical re-imagining of the life of Margot Frank, the older sister to the world-famous diarist, Anne Frank. Although the sisters died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Holocaust, in Cantor’s MARGOT, the elder Frank sister escapes the Nazis and begins a new life in America. No one knows her past and she plans to keep it that way — until the movie version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” debuts in theatres and Margot must confront what she thought she left behind.

Margot cover“Writers of historical fiction worry about getting the facts right, especially when they are writing about real life figures,” Brandi said to me during a conversation we had about this book. “What struck me about Jillian Cantor’s book is how she was able to use historical fiction ” to carve out a world that I wish could have been reality.”

As writers, what’s the takeaway from a book like MARGOT, besides, of course, a compelling read from a young breakout author? For us at Book Country, it serves as an inspiring example of the power of historical fiction: “You can’t change the past,” Brandi says. “But as a writer, you can.” Margot’s fictional experiences as an immigrant to the US also underscore the value of writing a well-known history from a creative angle, which allows a writer to accomplish much more than a straight retelling–it’s also “a retort” to what we think we already know.

In the following essay, Cantor explains why she felt pulled to write about Margot, and the greater themes she was able to write about using Margot as her main character.

The first time I read THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL, I was about the same age Anne Frank was when she wrote it. At thirteen, I was a budding writer, a dreamer, and Jewish, and it occurred to me that had I lived fifty years earlier in Europe, I might’ve been the one writing the diary in hiding. It was a terrifying thought, but after I closed the book, the world of the annex still seemed very far away. I lived in a bucolic suburb of Philadelphia with my younger sister and my parents, a teenager in the 1990s. We were Jewish, but only insofar as we celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas. My grandfather, who’d been raised deeply religious, used to tell my sister and me that someday being Jewish would mean something to us, “when you have kids,” he used to say vaguely, as if some magical Jewish force would be unleashed within us at some later point in life. We used to roll our eyes.

But then I grew up. I married a Jewish man and had two kids. My grandfather died and that same year, I felt compelled to organize my first Passover Seder. My kids started asking questions about religion, and suddenly I wanted the answers myself. Around this time, I also picked up THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL again. Only this time, as an adult, a mother, the book seemed entirely different. For one thing, I was struck by how different I was at 33 than at 13, and how tragic it was that Anne and Margot and many Jewish teenagers, never got the chance to grow up. But also I was struck by Margot, Anne’s older sister, who I barely remembered from my earlier reading. What had happened to her, I wondered, and how had her experience in the annex been different from Anne’s? I learned Margot had kept her own diary in the annex, but it was never recovered after the war, and very little is known about her today. It occurred to me that I been there in that annex, I would not have been Anne at all, I would’ve been Margot, the older, quieter sister who years later might have been forgotten.

MARGOT is a story about sisters and survival, tragedy and hope, but most of all it’s a story about what it means to be true to yourself. And all these years later, I think maybe that’s what my grandfather meant.

Jillian Cantor

About Jillian Cantor:

Jillian Cantor has a B.A. in English from Penn State University and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, where she was also a recipient of the national Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. The author of several books for teens and adults, she grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. She currently lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons. Visit her online on her website. Follow her on Twitter @JillianCantor.


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