The Book of Aron

By Jim Shepard

(Knopf, $23.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Jim Shepard, who grew up in Connecticut and teaches at Williams College, has now published seven novels and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a National Book Award finalist and winner of The Story Prize. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, Tin House, Granta, Zoetrope and other magazines, and often have been selected for The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

What is this book about?

Be prepared: this is not your usual light summer reading. The Book of Aron is about a young Jewish boy in Poland during the Holocaust, caught up in an enormity he can barely comprehend even as it dominates his life and gives him slim chances for survival. The Nazis drive his family (and countless others) from the Polish countryside to the Warsaw ghetto, where starvation, rampant disease and vicious persecution merely top the list of horribles. He helps his family by becoming a smuggler and trader with other kids, all being hunted down by evil adults of every persuasion. Eventually, his family is decimated, but Aron finds temporary solace in the Warsaw orphanage run by a real person: Janusz Korczak, a doctor who fought for children’s rights and an opponent of the Nazi war machine. Aron becomes his ward and helper, but the concentration camps await these brave kids and adults. It will take stupendous courage and skill to do what the doctor hopes Aron can: escape and tell the word about the horrors he has seen.

Why you’ll like it:

Aron is not an angelic boy, but you will forgive and not soon forget him. Shepard has many talents as a writer, chief among them the uncanny ability to write believably in the voice of a child, as he did in his memorable and terrifying Project X, based on a Columbine-like slaughter at a high school. In this book, Shepard manages to keep readers glued to the kind of story that truly makes them want to put the book down so as not to have their hearts broken by the story it tells. At a time when prejudice has once again reared its ugly head in the U.S., it is important to read what unchecked evil it can unleash. Give Shepard credit for telling such a difficult tale with skill, using dark humor when he can. Events like those in The Book of Aron really happened. Books like this may help in some small way to make sure they do not happen again, at least not on our watch.

What others are saying:

“A masterpiece. . . a remarkable novel destined to join the shelf of essential Holocaust literature. . . . a story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage. . . . Shepard has created something transcendent and timeless,” says Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

“The story of what happened to children in the Holocaust is not for the faint-hearted. A fictional, first-person narrative from the point of view of a Jewish child in Warsaw—in fact, a child in Dr. Janusz Korczak’s well-known orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto—is very brave. And a heartbreaking historical novel that ends in Treblinka may not be what many readers are expecting from a novelist and short-story writer whose ironic touch is often comedic. But Jim Shepard has written a Holocaust novel that stands with the most powerful writing on that terrible subject,”  says bestselling author John Irving.

Library Journal’s starred review by Patrick Sullivan of Manchester Community College says: “The Warsaw Ghetto during the darkest days of World War II is the setting of this important, heartbreaking but also inspiring new novel . . . Told from the perspective of Aron, a Jewish boy in the ghetto, it is the study of the sadistic and systematic deprivation and dehumanization of a people. Forced with his family from the countryside into the ghetto, where he joins a band of hardy young smugglers, Aron eventually loses his entire clan to typhus, malnutrition, and forced labor and ends up in an orphanage in the ghetto run by Janusz Korczak, an important historical figure from this period. Korczak was a well-known advocate for children’s rights before the war and became famous for the orphanage he ran in the ghetto, and the author brings this heroic figure powerfully to life. Shepard also skillfully depicts the blighted human and moral landscape within the ghetto, where normal understandings of right and wrong have become impossibly compromised under the pressure of extermination. Surrounded by devastation, hopelessness, and cruelty, Korczak becomes an exemplar of all that is good and decent in the human spirit. Few will be able to read the last terrible, inspiring pages without tears in their eyes. VERDICT Indispensable reading.”

Kirkus’s starred review says: “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, 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?” Ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Shepard is known for his enormous range and for the research that informs his many novels and stories—a reputation that will be reconfirmed with this novel, the acknowledgments section of which runs six pages long. And yet it is a supple, unlabored voice that issues from Aron (Sh’maya to his family), a young Polish Jew who survives as a thief, urchin, and smuggler forcibly relocated to Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto following the German invasion. Typhus, blackmail, and the Nazis’ wanton violence are routine, but perhaps the greatest threat is the Jewish Order Service, in charge of requisitions and expulsions, for whom Aron agrees to become an informer. Meanwhile, his gang—lead by the charismatic and more politically committed youth Boris—fight for control of the Quarter’s meager resources. But Aron’s alliances begin to shift following the rise of disappearances and quarantines, especially after he meets Janusz Korczak, “The Old Doctor,” a famous radio personality turned guardian who runs a shelter for children even as news of the concentration camps begins to trickle down. Aron’s fate will come down to a question of conviction: will Aron commit himself to Boris’s cause, or embrace the doctor’s selfless idealism? Shepard is a master with a light touch—but against the backdrop of the Holocaust, maybe a bit too light. Although this novel paints an unflinching portrait of the ghetto, many characters seem to stand in for ideas, and the limp plot is propped up only by Shepard’s eye for detail.”

When is it available?

This compelling novel is on the new book shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.