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

“Into a realm with the finest Holocaust fiction.”

Amazing review in the Boston Glove by Jan Stuart: 

For his ninth birthday, Aron Rozycki, a heedless Jewish boy who had recently moved to Warsaw with his family, was feted with a raisin cake. No cake would be in the offing for his 10th birthday, as tragedy had struck the Rozycki household in the intervening year, and his mother was in no mood. If Aron had anything of note to remember about his 10th, he could thank the Germans, who chose that week to invade Poland.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, you already know more than you care to about the miseries that would shortly befall Polish Jews like the Rozyckis. To be sure, I approached “The Book of Aron” with a mixture of trepidation and abundant admiration for its author, Jim Shepard, who has elicited praise and cavils alike for his brazen agility at plumbing landscapes that far exceed the limits of his view and academic perch in Williamstown. Certainly it requires a particular mettle to squire a reader from 14th-century France to the set of a 1950s Japanese sci-fi flick to a heaven-scraping peak in Islamabad, as Shepard, who teaches creative writing and film at Williams College, did with such éclat in his last book.

The title of that story collection, “You Think That’s Bad,” could serve as a community lament for the characters limned in “The Book of Aron,” who, once the Germans roll in, are repeatedly compelled to reset their bar of well-being as they adjust to daily diminishing freedoms. Proclamations are issued to Warsaw’s Jews with incremental stealth: first the yellow armbands, then the restricted trolleys, then three trolleys are reduced to just one (emblazoned, like the armbands, with a star of David). Brick walls go up; markets on one side are made off limits; families must cram into flats with other families. Attempts to comply with the ever-morphing order become futile: “But no one knew what worked and what didn’t and what seemed secure one day was a soap bubble the next.”

This agonizing process is filtered through the risibly self-deprecating voice of Shepard’s title character, a boy with a penchant for tears and a divining rod for predicaments. “My mother and father named me Aron,” he announces in the book’s opening passages, “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.” While he elicits more sympathy from his mother, a laundress, even she admonishes him that “too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.”

Aron’s unquestioning nature, coupled with a cipher-like tendency to recede into the woodwork, render him easy fodder for the ghetto’s enterprising no-goodniks. As shortages beset the neighborhood, he aligns himself with a rough-and-tumble band of adolescent black marketers who smuggle in everything from bread to surplus bags of cement left over from building the ghetto walls. At the same time, Aron is bullied into service as an informer for the Gestapo’s “anti-crime unit” by Lejkin, a Jewish police factotum whose instinct for self-preservation is only exceeded by the impulse to emulate the enemy he serves. When Lejkin gets wise to Aron’s smuggling operation, instead of arresting him, he puts in an order for a bootjack.

Inevitably, Aron’s conflictingly subversive activities put him on a collision course with dire consequences for his young partners in survival.

Shepard, in his stark depiction of the ways in which children under duress in a traumatized world replicate the amorality of the dominant culture, succinctly deploys the tools of realism to navigate that dark zone previously charted in such indelible allegorical works as William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and Michael Haneke’s film masterpiece “The White Ribbon.”

Intervention, if not redemption, arrives by means of Aron’s blooming alliance with Janusz Korczak, a real-life doctor and educational reformer whose heroic advocacy for children’s rights made him, in the words of one character, “the safest Jew in the ghetto.” Aron plays Sancho Panza to this irresistibly quixotic figure as he accompanies Korczak on his rounds throughout the increasingly perilous ghetto streets, squeezing donations for his innovative orphanage. If Aron owns the rights to the book’s seductive narrative voice, it is Korczak who embodies its enveloping humanity. With affecting teamwork, a feckless boy with little conscience and an aging man with a surfeit of humility walk into the fire, lifting “The Book of Aron” into a realm with the finest Holocaust fiction.

Here’s the link to the full Boston Globe review.

Review: “A Work of Extraordinary Fiction:”

A wonderful review of The Book of Aron in the Los Angeles Review of Books

“Siphoning Away the Warmth”: On Jim Shepard’s Radical Empathy

LATE IN “Poland is Watching,” the last story of Jim Shepard’s 2012 collection You Think That’s Bad, the narrator, an extreme mountain climber, describes his ascent up Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest peak:

After any prolonged stay above five thousand meters, the body begins to consume itself. Conditioning deteriorates. Fat disappears and muscle tissue follows. With each moment of acclimatization at altitude, strength decreases. Waking in Camp 4 is like waking in prison after having done something awful the night before.

This paragraph’s cut-up cadence and blunted sentences are meant to mimic the physical deterioration described on the page. The total destruction of our narrator and his fellow climbers comes soon after. As the mountain and its unforgiving elements quite literally consume them, Shepard’s narrator catalogs the sporadic interactions he had with his wife before leaving for the climb, divining those crystallized moments of their love as his mind, short on oxygen, slips into incoherence.

Agnieszka! I want to tell her. The mountains have brought us together, as well. They’ve always been the authors of our development. They’ve allowed us to see what no other human beings have ever seen. They’ve siphoned away the warmth, down to our core and beyond, as payment.

It is an unapologetically blunt exercise in romantic self-destruction: our narrator and his fellow climbers have left their loving wives and children, have knowingly advanced in worsening conditions to reach, at last, the summit, and, knowing or not, their demise in search of some greater unknown.

In 2011, while doing press for You Think That’s Bad, Shepard was asked why he was drawn to the extreme experiences that figure throughout his fiction. “I’m interested in maximizing the pressure that the narratives exert on the emotional situations in which my characters find themselves,” he said. “I’m also always looking to embody that kind of conflict in concrete terms, which means I’ve been increasingly drawn to those kinds of extreme situations.”

Such a predilection might explain the author’s most recent exploration into historical extremes; his new novel, The Book of Aron, follows a Polish boy as the Germans herd him from the countryside into the Warsaw ghetto. Here Shepard shifts from self-destruction as penance for a greater truth, as was the apparent focus in “Poland Is Watching,” to total, illogical obliteration.


TheBook of Aron is built like a long short story, starting late and ending early. Shepard relies on narrative tricks and signifiers to achieve typical novel-like depth in short order. Aron’s nickname is one of those tricks. The very first sentence of the novel establishes both Shepard’s dark humor and darker narrative approach: “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done.” Unlike Dickens’s Pip, who names himself from the onset and thus embarks on the journey of authoring his own life, Aron is denied almost any latitude. Though this book chronicles the typical period of a young man’s coming of age — from prepubescence to the age he would celebrate his bar mitzvah — Aron’s story appears as the anti-bildungsroman: in place of self-discovery and pursued destiny we are given only crushing, impossible circumstances. From sentence one, Shepard establishes that Aron never stands a chance.

Aron, we quickly learn, is a slight and short boy from a poor Polish family, not yet bar mitzvah’d, tended to by his mother and ignored by his older brothers and father. He’s a mother’s boy in the cut of all mother’s boys — ungrateful, selfish, but longing for that love nevertheless. Yet, for all his innocence and tragic circumstance, Aron is a conspicuously unsentimental character, both in action and as portraiture. Instead he serves as a sort of proxy, a test for our passive observation of degradation.

Early on, before the truly horrible circumstances become known, Aron, by way of briefly summarizing that state of his relationship with his mother, reveals the underlying preoccupation of this novel:

Neither of us would speak until she finally asked me to try to remain a decent human being and then kissed my cheek before wishing me a good night.

How does one remain a “decent human being” while being swept up in a mass genocide? Though she hasn’t meant to, Aron’s mother has posed an unanswerable question of the very kind Shepard has written this novel to explore.

Once herded into the Jewish ghetto and newly minted as a petty thief, Aron, along with his friend Lutek, records the monstrous degradation in simple, yet stenographic detail:

One night I brought home almonds, but it didn’t matter because some women in fur coats had been ordered to wash the pavement with their underwear and then to put their underwear back on again, wet, and my mother and everyone else had been forced to watch, and she was still upset.

I told Lutek about it and he told me about having come across an old Jew atop a barrel with some German soldiers cutting his hair, with a crowd gathered around laughing. He said all they were doing was cutting his hair and he couldn’t tell how upset the old Jew was but that he’d told himself then and there he would never let himself end up on top of that barrel.

Aron’s internalization and understanding of these events are noticeably absent. These glimpses of startling cruelty are not meant to be understood by our narrator, but only recorded. In this way Shepard provides an upward-looking gaze of unclouded documentation, an uninflected voice through which we can receive the full horror.

Soon enough the lines between right and wrong blur to the point of illegibility, the keys to survival become more difficult to ascertain. Aron takes up with a gang of prepubescent thieves. They rob stores and households, devise plans and set meeting places. When Aron brings home stolen food, his mother decries the moral failure, while his father, grateful for the sustenance, turns a blind eye. Things get worse, inevitably. The lice come. Food rations diminish. The sick fall sicker, and quarantines, first spoken of in panic, become the stuff of knowing asides. As if they were the weather.

“Maybe he’s got the typhus too,” Zofia said, and Lutek said that the typhus was now the other subject he was sick of. Were we supposed to talk about nothing but food all day like him, Zofia wanted to know, and he said that he couldn’t decide who was more boring. All the rich talked about was when they were going to get the inoculation and all the poor talked about when they were going to get the disease.

Aron’s intermittent and unfortunate relationship with a desperate member of the Judenrat further disrupts the possibility of any moral orientation. The boy is deceived into giving some information to the Judenrat that ultimately leads to his friend’s death. Then Aron’s mother soon collapses from typhus and dies on a wooden pallet in the hallway of an overpopulated hospital. This scene too is noticeably short and unsentimental — her dying, like every other small tragedy that happens around us, quickly transforms into a simple fact of life, something to be understood and then dealt with. It follows that in this novel we do not mourn those who die, but those, like Aron, who live.

Without his father and older brothers — long sent off to labor camps with the promise of work — and on the outs with his gang after the death of his friend, Aron finds himself completely alone, an orphan on the streets, destitute, sickly, and near death.

If Aron’s story up until this point is a relentless recording of unceasing moments of horror and inhumanity, then by the time Shepard hands over the stage to the novel’s hero, the nonfictional Janusz Korczak, we are eager for whatever shelter he might provide.

A once-beloved radio show host and doctor, the war has weathered Korczak immensely: he is old, weak, sleepless, and in constant anguish. When he’s not tending to his ever-increasing group of orphans — addressing their wounds, examining their illnesses, quelling their nightmares — he’s tirelessly walking the streets, seeking donations in any form, arguing over and over again for tiny gestures of human goodness. Shepard labors to make Korczak a saint, albeit a complicated one. Pan doctor, affectionately called by some of his children, soon takes to Aron, including the child on his charity runs.

On the way back his legs were so swollen he had to hire one of the bicycles with seats attached for passengers. He asked me to choose the strongest-looking driver and while we rode he leaned over to me and said in a hoarse voice that he was always moved by how gentle and quiet the drives were, like oxen or horses.

Korczak also provides some of the book’s most darkly humorous insights into the unknowable rage and frustration of living for others and not himself:

He read his letters aloud to himself in the early morning when he thought everyone else was asleep, so that night I stopped on the stairs and watched from the darkness […] Korczak held his letter up to the light and read. “To the Editor of the Jewish Gazette: Dear Mr. Editor! Thank you for your favorable evaluation of the orphanage’s activity. But: ‘Love Plato, yet love more the truth.’ The Orphanage was not, is not and will never be Korczak’s Orphanage. The man is too small, too weak, too poor, and too dimwitted to gather, feed, warm, protect and initiate into life almost two hundred children. This great task — this herculean task —.

The later pages of The Book of Aron are populated with similar passages of spare beauty. In the company of Korczak, a man who was promised escape to Palestine time and again but chose to die with his orphans, Shepard grants us these tiny, but arresting moments as a salve. As their fate hurdles toward them, Korczak appears embittered and frustrated. He understands the impossibility of his task, and is all the more human for it. Aron’s childlike gaze again is put to good use in these sections, allowing us to understand our saintly doctor from a position of fear, confusion, and awe.

Korczak’s ability to forgive is as much of a necessity to his children as food and drink. All of them, like Aron, have surely seen and done wretched things to survive. In fact, Aron offers to inform for the Judenrat once again in order to procure Korczak’s safe escape, reminding us that, in all of the period’s merciless privations, one of the greatest was the utter denial of a child’s right to be innocent.

As the book ends, Korczak consoles his frantic orphans:

The child has the right to be. The child has the right to grieve. The child has the right to learn. And the child has the right to make mistakes.

In this way the doctor finds some small foothold in the chaos: if he cannot save his children, he will lead them in grace and calm, to return them a portion of their innocence just as their world, their time, so violently attempts to strip it away.


In taking on this history, the orphan’s story of the Holocaust, Shepard places himself well within potentially disastrous circumstances. As Adam Kirsch recently articulated in his essay “The Age of Bad Holocaust Novels”:

Art that successfully transforms reality, elevating it to a plane of harmony and permanence, can only be a falsification of an experience as violent and inhuman as the Holocaust.

Shepard succeeds because he never wavers from his novel’s moral focus. This is a book about annihilation, and the human spirit that somehow lives on, in slivers and cracks. This is the truth that Shepard siphons away from a history otherwise filled with the chill of encroaching brutality, the truth that renders a work of extraordinary fiction.

Full review can be found here.  Time to order the book if you haven’t already – Powell’s has signed copies.