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.