"The Book of Aron" by Jim Shepard, Knopf, $23.95
Aron, the protagonist and narrator of Jim Shepard's new novel, is a troublemaker, a kid who "broke medicine bottles by crashing them together and let the neighbors' animals loose from their pens." His older brother is sick, and his upbringing—in a poor shtetl in Poland, near the Lithuanian border—is the epitome of hardscrabble. “In our family," Aron says, "the cure for a toothache was to slap the other side of your face."
His family moves from the sthetl to Warsaw, but Aron continues his troublemaking—in the ghetto, he falls into smuggling and other mischief. Germany's invasion of Poland in September of 1939 does not arouse much concern in him ("The next morning my father told me to get up, because it was war and the Germans had invaded"), but it eventually upends his family and his entire life. Caught smuggling, he is forced to inform on his fellow Jews.
For a slim volume—250 small pages—"The Book of Aron" drew on an impressively lengthy list of historical resources, which are listed in the back of the book. Shepard, the author of multiple novels and short story collections—and employer of a startling array of backgrounds and characters in his fiction—made an interesting choice by limiting his perspective to a young Polish boy. It gives the story an urgency and immediacy that made this reviewer read the entire book in only two sittings.
The enormity of the Holocaust is rendered in various ways, from casual cruelty (Nazis pulling a Jewish man by the nose with pliers because he had not been courteous) to the heroes doing whatever they can to save their fellow citizens (the orphanage director Janus Korczak, a real-life hero who takes a fictionalized interest in Aron). Shepard, famous for his in media res endings and sometimes put in the pantheon of living American writers, has provided a perfectly paced plot whose ending we all know all too well.
"You’re like me,” Aron's mother tells him at one point. “You think if you stay quiet you’ll be able to keep going like everyone else.” "The Book of Aron" is a tragedy of heroism, exquisitely written and devastating as it progresses. A valuable addition to Holocaust literature, Aron's story will likely linger long in any reader's memory.