He is amazing. This is why you need to come to his readings.
The Book of Aron tour is still underway! Check out the tour schedule here.
He is amazing. This is why you need to come to his readings.
The Book of Aron tour is still underway! Check out the tour schedule here.
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
If you can believe it, Jim will be in San Francisco, Seattle, Milwaukee, Chicago and Cleveland this week. Don’t miss a chance to meet him in person and hear an incredible reading from The Book of Aron. Check out the Book Tour section has the complete dates and times for the readings.
A wonderful review of The Book of Aron in the Los Angeles Review of Books
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.
Wonderful Vulture post on Jim Shepard:
Jim Shepard is one of the best writers you’ve never heard of. He’s a tenured professor at Williams College, a job he’s held happily for 32 years — raising his family in pastoral Massachusetts, teaching generations of admiring acolytes, writing dozens of short stories and seven lean novels (including the intense character studies Nosferatu and Project X) to his own strange, exacting specifications.
Yet Shepard describes himself as “semi-obscure,” a “writer’s writer,” which he takes as a sort of consolation prize: “It used to mean, ‘writers like him, anyway.’” He is not happy with his place in literary culture; nor should he be, since his commercial timing has always been a little off. When he joined a friend to ghostwrite YA novels, they decided to focus on sports instead of horror stories, that future genre of blockbusters. Project X, about an eighth-grader plotting a school massacre, showcased his talent for penetrating the consciousness of any character in any circumstance (ranging, in his stories, from a mythical swamp creature to gay lovers on the Hindenburg). That novel was frequently called the best fictional treatment of Columbine, but it came out after Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre’s version, which won the Booker Prize. After that, he chose to focus on short stories, just as his fellow writers of genre mash-ups — pop-lit straddlers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem — were being fêted for big, meaty novels. Now, 11 years after Project X, he’s finally back with a novel … about the Holocaust. More specifically, The Book of Aron, out today, is about a preteen troublemaker awaiting deportation to Treblinka.
“I didn’t sit back and say, ‘It’s high time somebody wrote another Holocaust novel,’” Shepard says on the phone from Williamstown. A compulsive reader of history, he says he just found himself returning again and again to those atrocity stories. “If you’re drawn to manmade catastrophes,” says Shepard, who’s built stories around a tsunami, the Hindenburg fire, and the Chernobyl meltdown, “the Holocaust is sitting right there.”
For someone who’s made a vocation of inhabiting the most unusual characters, a first-person victim’s narrative in one of historical fiction’s most well-trod genres might seem disappointingly conventional (and perhaps another misfire of timing). His much-better-known contemporary Martin Amis entered the field last year with The Zone of Interest, but he adopted the point of view of the villains and injected subversive notes of humor. Also, he’s Martin Amis.
It would be a shame if schmaltz-averse readers — those who’d like Shepard most — skipped the novel, which turns out to be a case study in avoiding schmaltz. Owing to his deep research and severely understated style, The Book of Aron is unique and, in the end, shattering. Instead of humanizing evil, as in Project X, Shepard complicates victimhood, making Aron a petty smuggler and sometime-collaborator filled with self-loathing. Aron narrates his horrible story almost without affect, and his suffering increases so gradually that the ghetto’s Nazi-managed slide into disease, starvation, and liquidation feels almost bearable — until it isn’t. By the time the newsreel-ready horrors are unveiled, we are both freshly shocked and sadly inured. The frog in the boiling pot died long before the trains arrived.
Shepard is also unafraid of killing his darlings: His featured player is Janusz Korczak, the real-life head of a Warsaw orphanage who refused to save himself and abandon the children. Fairly or not, Shepard blames Steven Spielberg for our latter-day cult of Holocaust sentimentality. “Schindler can show you an enormous and quite historically accurate cost in terms of Jewish lives as long as those Jewish lives are extras,” says Shepard. “It’ll provide you with the security that everybody you care about is going to be saved. That allows people to come out of the theater saying, ‘That was a really harrowing experience, but I loved it, you have to go see it.’ I think you should come to the end of a Holocaust text shaken on behalf of our species.”
If there seems to be something of Walter Mitty in Shepard — the rooted professor imagining himself into wild historical scenarios — that may be because for him, college was the escape. He was the first member of his working-class Connecticut family to go, and the pressure to succeed drove him, oddly, to impractical pursuits. “I was trying to find something that I just wouldn’t flunk out at,” he says, “and I was drawn to history and English.” The latter felt more exciting and revelatory, but Shepard could never shake the historian’s hunger for primary sources. He got his MFA at Brown, imbibing just enough of its postmodern ethos to take straight realism off its pedestal. Then, after a brief stint at the University of Michigan, he had an important choice to make.
Much has been made in recent years of the two paths available to today’s literary novelist (see, of course, Chad Harbach’s n+1 essay “MFA vs. NYC”). There is the academic MFA system, which favors tenure over sales, and there is the go-for-broke New York writer’s life of book-party logrolling and attention-seeking bravado. That dilemma has been around since at least the early ’80s, when Shepard had to decide whether to take the job at Williams or move to New York. “I had a number of friends who were writers in the city who seemed to have a pretty exciting life,” he says. “So I had that pull: If you’re serious, maybe you should go there and hang. On the other hand, you’re about to get a job that’s going to allow you to write. If you go to New York, you’re going to be scrambling from job to job. I knew that would have a hugely detrimental effect. Some people can write in coffee shops. I can’t.”
Shepard has thrived in academia ever since. He was even a finalist for the job of director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop — effectively the presidency of MFA Land. He believes he lost it partly because he was unenthusiastic about its administrative duties. He just wanted to teach and write.
For a couple of novels, Shepard wrote what he knew, but eventually he gravitated toward his own brand of historical fiction. After his fifth novel, Nosferatu, based on the life of the filmmaker F.W. Murnau, Shepard turned toward short stories based on more or less esoteric scenarios. He once traveled to the rain forest to research “The Creature From the Black Lagoon,” a 12-page story about a B-movie monster. Financially, it was not a wise move, he says: “I have novelist friends who tell me, ‘You’re crazy. You have six months of research here, and you can easily get 350 pages and instead of $1,000 [for a short story], you can get a lot more than that.’ I can register the inefficiency, but I don’t want to do this big, elaborate machinery if I can avoid it. Maybe I also wanted to put less food on my children’s plates.”
In fact, thanks to Williams, his children eat fine, while Shepard spends his days delving into, say, the scholarly dispute over the exact date of the deportation of Warsaw’s orphans. (For Aron, he chose one over another because it was recorded as being sunny and hot; it never occurred to him to change the weather.) MFA programs have long been knocked for sanding off writers’ odd angles and rough edges, but in Shepard’s case, they’ve helped to preserve them.
“You’re trying to communicate, and you want to reach as many people as you can,” he says. “I’m sorry that the short story has so little cultural currency. I’m not going to be able to change that, but I like the focus and the economy and the potential ferocity of the form, and so the fact that I’m able to get away with doing that and have an income elsewhere means that I can indulge that. I don’t need to write a trilogy in order to keep my family afloat.”
Full article can be found here.
An understated and devastating novel of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation, as seen through the eyes of a street-wise boy.
Shepard has recently earned more renown for his short stories (You Think That’s Bad, 2011, etc.), but here he presents an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival through a narrator who’s just 9 years old when the tale begins. He’s a Jewish boy living in the Polish countryside with his family and an odd sense of his place in the world. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he despairs, matter-of-factly describing himself as basically friendless, a poor student, and an enigma to his loving mother: “She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.” Yet Aron proves to be engaging company as he describes the selfishness that will help him survive as the world becomes increasingly hellish. The horrors are so incremental that Aron—and the reader—might be compared to the lobster dropped into the pot as the temperature keeps rising past the boiling point. Aron’s perspective is necessarily limited, and he often seems to have little understanding of what’s happening around him or why. His family is pushed into the city, and in the ghetto’s chaos, he’s separated from them. Serving as a moral counterweight to the boy’s instinctive pragmatism is Dr. James Korczak, a real-life Polish Jew whose ambition to “become the Karl Marx of children” inspired him to keep a couple hundred alive through his orphanage, which he supports by begging for funds from the better-off ghetto inhabitants. Aron becomes the doctor’s ward and accomplice, though he has also been serving as an occasional informer for the Gestapo through an intermediary in the Jewish police. He tries to use his position to help save the doctor from being sent to a concentration camp, but the doctor is only interested if he can save all the other children as well. “How do we know if we love enough?” asks the doctor. “How do we learn to love more?”
Find the full review here.
Huge news for Jim Shepard fans – his new novel is coming out in May 2015, and it’s going to be incredible. Here’s the information from Knopf:
The acclaimed National Book Award finalist—“one of the United States’ finest writers,” according to Joshua Ferris, “full of wit, humanity, and fearless curiosity”—now gives us a novel that will join the short list of classics about children caught up in the Holocaust.
Aron, the narrator, is an engaging if peculiar and unhappy young boy whose family is driven by the German onslaught from the Polish countryside into Warsaw and slowly battered by deprivation, disease, and persecution. He and a handful of boys and girls risk their lives by scuttling around the ghetto to smuggle and trade contraband through the quarantine walls in hopes of keeping their fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters alive, hunted all the while by blackmailers and by Jewish, Polish, and German police, not to mention the Gestapo.
When his family is finally stripped away from him, Aron is rescued by Janusz Korczak, a doctor renowned throughout prewar Europe as an advocate of children’s rights who, once the Nazis swept in, was put in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. Treblinka awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape—as his mentor suspected he could—to spread word about the atrocities?
Jim Shepard has masterfully made this child’s-eye view of the darkest history mesmerizing, sometimes comic despite all odds, truly heartbreaking, and even inspiring. Anyone who hears Aron’s voice will remember it forever.
In her article “The World Lives With Water,” Elizabeth Minkel discusses Jim Shepard’s story “The Netherlands Lives with Water.” Here’s an excerpt:
Marital problems, and an unwillingness to directly confront them, are an undercurrent through the story, but I was completely wrapped up in Shepard’s imagined future, where the Netherlands calmly tries to control the uncontrollable: rising seas and an explosion of natural disasters. The technical details are remarkably engaging, but it’s the description of the floods—future floods, and the North Sea flood of 1953, the Watersnoodramp—that left me genuinely shaken:
Now that our land has subsided as much as it has, when the water does come, it will come like a wall, and each dike that stops it will force it to turn, and in its churning it will begin to spiral and bore into the earth, eroding away the dike walls, until the pressure builds and that dike collapses and it’s on to the next one, with more pressure piling up behind, and so on and so on until every last barrier falls and the water thunders forward like a hand sweeping everything from the table.
It’s hard to read, even as the news from upstate and New England has dropped off dramatically in recent days. Nearly a million people up and down the Eastern seaboard are still without power, and the cleanup from the floods has just begun. Updates from my family are heartbreaking—my father works in Schoharie County, one of the worst hit areas in New York State, and even though the several feet of water have subsided, the flood’s detritus remains. And the water levels are as high as they can be; the ground is saturated. If another storm sweeps through, the devastation could be unimaginable.
And now, on this mild, cloudless day in New York City, it’s strange to think that a week ago we were laying sandbags at the floodgates along the East River. Last Friday, as a co-worker and I studied the emergency flood map—I live in north Brooklyn, a block from the border of Zone C, and he lives at the southern tip of Manhattan, Zone A, and subsequently left town that night—I couldn’t help but think that what we were really looking at was a map of places that, after a few decades of rising sea levels, may no longer exist. Shepard writes about a quality of Dutchness, pessimism married with practicality, which makes the nation ideally suited for fighting the oncoming seas. I am as un-Dutch as they come, and the idea of the East River spilling up and over the streets of my neighborhood leaves me anxious and incredibly sad. Re-reading “The Netherlands Lives with Water” helped. Shepard’s prose is balanced, steady, and subtly beautiful.
Read the full article here.