“A Slim Masterpiece:” Joshua Ferris reviews Book of Aron

A wonderful review in the Guardian: “The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.” Here it is in full:

Jim Shepard has always been preoccupied by history. His long-admired collections of short stories come with multiple pages of acknowledgments that read like the bibliographies of an intellectually promiscuous research student. His fictional subjects are often real-life figures who feature in various human fiascos spanning the centuries. It might be tempting to dismiss history’s distant follies as the function of a bygone and benighted era, but Shepard’s short fictions remind us that all eras are benighted because humanity is inherently flawed, reckless and blinkered.

Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, set in the Warsaw ghetto, is another historical fiction, but a departure of sorts. Where Shepard’s short fiction often features the bit players and hapless sidemen of disaster, The Book of Aron brings to life an indisputably great man, the child advocate Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage and followed his charges to Treblinka.

But The Book of Aron is Aron’s book, the story of a misbegotten boy born in Poland at a disastrous time. His antics exasperate his father, who beats him. His mother, loving but harried, is confounded by his behaviour. If that behaviour is mostly that of your run-of-the-mill five-year-old menace, nobody in the Rozycki household needs another headache. The trouble greater than Aron is the general squalor of life among Jews in the Polish countryside on the brink of the second world war. Sickness, toil, penury, bad teeth, disaster and death rule their lives long before the Nazis even make an appearance.

Aron’s early efforts to be a better person are touching. “I lectured myself on walks,” he tells us. “I made lists of ways I could improve.” He takes to books. He loves his mother. In the quiet hours of night, they form a special bond that is Aron’s only tether to humanity.

Things for the Rozyckis don’t improve when Aron’s father gets a job at his cousin’s factory, and they move to Warsaw. The Germans invade Poland soon after, and all Jews are shunted into the ghetto. Families double up in small apartments and sleep in hallways. Aron’s father is beaten mercilessly by German soldiers. His brothers are shipped off to labour camps. Aron runs the streets with a patchwork gang, stealing and smuggling what they can. He falls in with a member of the Jewish police who turns him into an ambivalent informant.

Shepard’s fidelity to the historical record is impressive, but what makes The Book of Aron a work of art is his obedience to the boy’s restricted perspective. To render Aron believably, Shepard had not only to sublimate copious research; he had to channel the consciousness and patterns of speech of a Jewish-Polish boy from the 1930s while divesting himself of most of the tools and tactics a typical writer uses to tell a story: elevated diction, reader-directed introspection, knowing metaphor. Shepard did something similar in his excellent, upsetting 2005 novel Project X, but that book’s protagonist was a contemporary American boy. This is the more remarkable act of ventriloquism, and it serves more than one thematic purpose. What better way to rebuke the Nazi piety that all Jewish life was utterly worthless than by bringing to full and empathetic life a perfect nobody of a kid, historically irrelevant as anything but a number, one of a countless horde? Aron’s perspective also mirrors that of the ghetto: no one knows what’s coming next, and the Jews are like credulous children under the Nazis’ indiscriminate lash. You’ve never experienced the unfolding atrocities in quite this way before, and this helps to make them anew.

There are bleak ironies and dark comic exchanges throughout The Book of Aron. But while these start off in a familiar Shepard mode – one character wielding sarcasm against another to reveal shortcomings of character – before the overwhelming colossus of Nazi oppression the humour has no choice but to shift focus. Considerable laughter emerges out of the terrible circumstances that surround Aron and his family, as the only defence the Jews of Warsaw have against patented insanity, and it rings convincingly with the syntax and speech patterns of aphoristic Yiddish wit. This is just one example of how the book slowly expands to become something great.

That expansion kicks into full force in the final third of the book, when Aron, stripped of family, home and sustenance, and freezing to death on the streets of the ghetto, is rescued by Korczak. Korczak is no cheery saint with box office appeal. “We’re walking tombstones,” he says to his assistant, Madame Stefa, whose only happiness is Korczak, but whose passion he cannot reciprocate. “I exist not to be loved,” he tells her, “but to act.” These are the words of a monomaniacal and self-martyring machine. But he is indisputably good. Despite illness and rejection, Korczak makes trip after tireless trip into the wider world in search of money and food for the children under his care. He soon takes to Aron, who, in his presence, no longer needs to make lists on how to improve. Their friendship, based on insomnia as much as likemindedness, prompts Aron to act selflessly in a way his mother would not have dared dream. If it’s ultimately in vain, there are consolations. We watch as character transcends its mean surroundings, and a once-questionable boy becomes a loving human being.

Narrative art about the Holocaust runs the risk of indulging our collective yearning. Please, writer; please, film-maker: save the characters we love. Alchemise the evil. Reassure us. The Book of Aron offers no reassurance. The fate of history is sealed. The book’s final pages are shattering. But by reclaiming an insignificant voice and deploying it to observe a great man, Shepard turns hell into a testament of love and sacrifice. The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.

“The ideal author you’d sit across the table from”

Book/Plate is a literary/culinary series in partnership with Peck’s Homemade, which pairs new books with complementary cuisine for a unique dinner with the author. And they had an event for The Book of Aron! The menu featured a meal celebrating the foods of the Eastern European Jewish Diaspora and celebrates the survival of this cultural tradition.   Check out a short video below:

Washington Post Review: It’s a Masterpiece

Ron Charles reviews “The Book of Aron” and he likes it!

In the summer of 1942, German soldiers expelled almost 200 starving children from an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and packed them into rail cars bound for Treblinka. As with so many entries in the encyclopedia of Nazi atrocities, the depravity of that act and our inability to fathom such cruelty threaten to eclipse the individuality of the victims.

Historians push back against the obliteration of chaos, time and shame, but talented novelists have also offered their creative gifts in this sacred process of remembrance. And now, Jim Shepard, one of America’s finest writers, brings the Warsaw orphanage to life in “The Book of Aron.”

Drawing on his imagination and dozens of historical sources, the author has produced a remarkable novel destined to join the shelf of essential Holocaust literature. Although relentless in its portrayal of systematic evil, “The Book of Aron” is, nonetheless, a story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage.

The narrator is a poor Polish boy who introduces himself by announcing, “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.” With erratic beatings, constant disparagement and unending illnesses, this is hardly a nurturing environment, but Aron’s clear-eyed reporting and self-deprecating humor make him irresistible. “I was like something that had been raised in the wild,” he confesses. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was.”

The novel hangs on the delicate tension of that deadpan adolescent voice — never cute, never cloying. Aron’s wryness is always entirely unknowing. He relays his world to us just as he experiences it: He fails at school. His mom complains about everything. His little brother dies. How he feels about any of this is articulated only in the space between his sentences. “The next morning my father told me to get up,” he says, “because it was war and the Germans had invaded.” And with that news, his town slides into hell.

We read novels about the Holocaust with the burden of knowledge: the incalculable statistics, the sickening photos, the faint outlines of vanished shtetls. But Aron has only his own simple life by which to judge anything, so nothing surprises him. “Whether I was happy or unhappy,” he says, “I took things as I found them.” What he finds is an ever-escalating series of horrors, but he describes the Nazis’ humiliations and crimes with a child’s concentration on the specific. “That night two Germans showed up at our door looking for furniture,” he says. “They roamed around our apartment before deciding we had nothing they liked. They went next door to our neighbors with the radio and took two chairs and a soup tureen. The husband told us after they left that they’d pulled him around by the nose with pliers because he hadn’t said a courteous enough hello.”

From that captivating perspective, Shepard re-creates the shrinking Warsaw ghetto, running out of food and ravaged by typhus as the Nazis ship out everything of value. But for Aron, the war delivers freedom from the drudgery of school. He joins a small gang of kids who scour the ghetto for loot. “The destroyed buildings were a great playground,” he says, “and we always found something surprising in the rubble.” Aron’s innocent face is an asset as his parents tell him to stay close and be careful. “I told them I would and went on doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to,” he says. He’s a scamp, helping his buddies smuggle goods through a hole in the ghetto wall, but they know they’re playing against opponents who shove prisoners into open fires and shoot kids in the streets.

As terror escalates in this doomed city, the novel delineates Aron’s dangerously compromised position. While he and his friends smuggle anything of value into the ghetto, he falls under the influence of a corrupt Jewish police officer who demands information for his Gestapo bosses. The boy has no way to resist, no way to excuse the deaths that result and no capacity to understand what is happening to him. After witnessing a particularly shocking murder, he says, “On my way home my legs acted like I kept forgetting how to walk and I stopped in the center of the road. I threw my own cap away. A truck honked and someone finally dragged me to the curb.” Divorced from his own feelings, he is left only with his sensory reports. “I wiped my eyes so hard I blinded myself at first,” he says. “There was nothing for me to do and nowhere for me to go in the face of the pictures in my head.”

But where he goes next draws “The Book of Aron” into one of the most affecting acts of bravery you will ever encounter. In real life, the caretaker of the Warsaw orphans was a well-known writer, a progressive pediatrician named Janusz Korczak. When his orphanage was moved into the ghetto, he insisted on going with the children. And there, in those final weeks, Shepard imagines him taking a special interest in Aron. “You’ll be fine,” the good doctor tells him, brushing away the boy’s tears.

Let’s set aside puffery about the best novel of the month or even the year; Shepard has created something transcendent and timeless in this slim masterpiece — a portrait of an exhausted but determined man, locked in a futile battle he will not concede. “It’s Jewish honor I’m upholding,” Dr. Korczak says as he trudges around the impoverished ghetto with Aron, cajoling and demanding donations for his 200 charges. Back at the orphanage, he designs both chores and games, exhorting these sick and malnourished children to imagine they aren’t “living in the worst place in the world but instead were surrounded by grasshoppers and glowworms.”

But there’s a lot more here than pastel optimism. Shepard shows Korczak in all the private discouragement and desperate loneliness that could make him short-tempered with those who loved him. “I am unkind,” he admits late one night. “To work here you have to be unkind. You have to be smeared with crap, you have to stink, you have to be crafty.”

That logic leads Aron into an ethical dilemma that he’s too young and weakened to resolve, which fuels the novel’s suspenseful crisis. But there is no room for hope for the Warsaw orphans; that history is carved into the earth. Although Dr. Korczak was offered opportunities to escape, he refused to abandon his children and died with them in Treblinka. Still, Shepard dares to move his narrative down the asymptote of despair, and the moral heroism he describes on that path toward infinity, you will never forget.

“A moving addition to Holocaust canon”

Winnipeg Free Press reviews The Book of Aron:

Aron Ròzycki, the narrator of American author Jim Shepherd’s extraordinary new novel, is an ordinary child. But Aron is not living in ordinary times.

Aron is living in German-occupied Warsaw, Poland in 1940 and because he is Jewish, he is living among 400,000 other people in that city’s overcrowded, disease-ridden ghetto.

When The Book of Aron opens, Aron is nine years old. When it ends, he is 13 — and on his way, it seems, to certain death in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

Between that beginning and end, Aron tells the story of his life in a voice that is so authentic, so bewildered and so sad that it can break a reader’s heart.

For many readers, this novel will evoke Leon Uris’s Mila 18, published more than 50 years ago and considered by many to be the quintessential novel about the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Book of Aron is a slighter novel and narrower in perspective, but it is as readable and unforgettable as that earlier work.

The ghetto conditions that Aron describes are horrific, and impossible to comprehend. Violence, cruelty, disease and desperation are everywhere.

Aron shares only the facts. He never softens the blow, never perseverates or extrapolates, never offers excuses, and never pretends to see hope where none exists.

When Aron is caught with a group of boys trying to smuggle goods into the ghetto, a German soldier inexplicably lets him go. The other boys, Aron reports, are not as lucky.

“The other kids were told to empty their pockets and stand against the wall. I ran away and after I rounded the corner I heard them shooting. Later the dead kids were still there on top of one another against the wall.”

As the situation in the ghetto worsens — as he loses one family member after another, as hunger stalks him and lice invades him — Aron increasingly must rely on his wits to survive. He joins a gang, becomes an informant and eventually lands in the ghetto orphanage run by Dr. Janusz Korczak.

In real life Korczak was a true hero of the Holocaust. Jewish by birth and a renowned pediatrician in prewar Poland, he cared for hundreds of children in the ghetto. When they were finally rounded up by the Gestapo he walked with them, hand in hand so that they would not be afraid, into the trains and into the showers of the extermination camp.

Under Shepherd’s pen and through Aron’s voice, Korczak comes vividly to life. Exhausted and unwell, Korczak spends his days looking for handouts for his orphans and nights ministering to their fears, their chills and their inconsolable longing for parents and siblings and home.

Korzcak takes a liking to Aron, perhaps seeing in the boy heroism that no one before has noticed. He confides in and relies on the boy, and speaks to him about humanity in the most inhumane of times.

In so vividly imaging Aron and remembering Korzcak, Shepherd has written a Holocaust novel that promises to become as iconic as Mila 18.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2015 D24

SFGate: Book of Aron “a transcendent fictional experience”

Yet another amazing review:

There are as many ways to give voice to the Holocaust as there are literary genres. The naturalism of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” follows a boy — seen in retrospect though his adult eyes — from Hungary to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In David Grossman’s surrealistic “See Under: Love,” an orphan boy resorts to inventive fantasies in an effort to come to terms with the horror. Art Speigelman’s “Maus” ventures into eerie comic-book territory, in a graphic novel portraying Nazis as cats toying with Jewish mice. All of these attempts to put the unspeakable into words have their merits.

Jim Shepard’s superb “The Book of Aron,” his seventh novel, set in the Warsaw ghetto, is a work of straight-ahead naturalism, but it is nothing like Wiesel’s pioneering 1960 novel. For one thing, it is a far better work of fiction.

In its time, “Night” seemed daring. It was bleak and uncompromising, reporting to those who had not known, or had refused to let themselves know, just how horrific Nazi atrocity could be. So Wiesel’s story of a boy and his father in the concentration camps spelled out everything. See how ruthless the capos could be. See how heartless some prisoners could be to fellow prisoners.

Upon re-reading, the novel can seem hopelessly didactic. “There was no longer any question of wealth, of social distinction,” Wiesel writes of the prisoners. His youthful narrator comes face-to-face with “the notorious Dr. Mengele,” but it’s only we readers, not the boy, who are aware of the doctor’s notoriety for heinous medical experiments.

By contrast, Shepard tells his story solely from the limited perspective of Aron Rozycki, his scrappy ragamuffin of a fighter. Aron knows only what he sees in front of him. All else is rumor. Are the Germans advancing on Russia? Will Allied bombing save the city? What he sees is starvation, illness and death, all framed in a landscape of grab-what-you-can opportunism with a pinch of selflessness and heroism.

The novel begins with this striking opening: “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with a boy whose father belittles him and whose peasant family believes if you have a toothache, the remedy is to slap the other side of your face. Aron’s father sells animal hides, and his mother washes other people’s floors. When the two are together, they quarrel, often about how to feed their four children. When father learns of a possible factory job in the capital, they leave their village and head to Warsaw. They have, it turns out, substituted one kind of misery for one infinitely worse.

The book’s enormous power comes from its stylistic restraint. Shepard describes the gradual shutting down of life support — the jamming of extended families and strangers into small apartments, the desperation for food, the spread of typhus, the beatings and shootings — in compact, chiseled sentences. The novel’s dignity flows from its utter lack of pretension.

Shepard’s matter-of-fact prose depicts a gradual tightening of the noose: one restriction on Jews after another, erection of walls around the ghetto, snatching away Jewish men for “work details.”

In this interim before wholesale deportation to the camps, 13-year-old Aron and his confederates harden themselves into a band of thieves and smugglers, swapping stolen goods for food and coal. Their enemies are legion: rival gangs, police (German, Polish and Jewish) and the Gestapo.

Inevitably, moral dilemmas abound. When Aron’s mother reminds him that stealing is always wrong, he retorts that starving is always wrong. At one point, Aron declares that he thinks only of himself, even if we readers disagree. An officer in the Jewish police tries to persuade Aron to save his skin by joining the force.

If this man is the book’s Satan, Dr. Janusz Korczak is the book’s hero. A physician who had risen to fame with a popular radio show for children, he now operates an orphanage for Jewish children. When Aron’s path crosses with “The Old Doctor,” he will discover that Korczak is no savior and that he is more than a sinner.

Korczak was, in fact, a real-life historical figure, a respected champion of children, whom he considered “the world’s oldest proletariat.” Aron is Shepard’s subtly crafted fictional creation, a boy forced to face wrenching grown-up choices.

Though Shepard has grounded his novel in numerous historical sources, he elevates “The Book of Aron” into a transcendent fictional experience. Without preaching, it reminds us of the infinite varieties of good and evil, and of the many paradoxical places in between.

Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.” E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com