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A remarkable debut novel—written with the fearless imagination of Michael Chabon and the piercing humor of Gary Shteyngart—about a small Jewish village in the Polish forest that is so secluded no one knows it exists . . . until now.
What if there was a town that history missed?
For decades, the tiny Jewish shtetl of Kreskol existed in happy isolation, virtually untouched and unchanged. Spared by the Holocaust and the Cold War, its residents enjoyed remarkable peace. It missed out on cars, and electricity, and the internet, and indoor plumbing. But when a marriage dispute spins out of control, the whole town comes crashing into the twenty-first century.
Pesha Lindauer, who has just suffered an ugly, acrimonious divorce, suddenly disappears. A day later, her husband goes after her, setting off a panic among the town elders. They send a woefully unprepared outcast named Yankel Lewinkopf out into the wider world to alert the Polish authorities.
Venturing beyond the remote safety of Kreskol, Yankel is confronted by the beauty and the ravages of the modern-day outside world – and his reception is met with a confusing mix of disbelief, condescension, and unexpected kindness. When the truth eventually surfaces, his story and the existence of Kreskol make headlines nationwide.
Returning Yankel to Kreskol, the Polish government plans to reintegrate the town that time forgot. Yet in doing so, the devious origins of its disappearance come to the light. And what has become of the mystery of Pesha and her former husband? Divided between those embracing change and those clinging to its old world ways, the people of Kreskol will have to find a way to come together . . . or risk their village disappearing for good.
Gross's lively and imaginative debut novel (after the memoir The Mensch Handbook) portrays a Jewish village in eastern Poland that's been isolated throughout the 20th century. The residents of Kreskol survive pogroms and the hateful superstitions of Christian neighbors ("For generations the priests had said that we poisoned drinking wells.... Or, alternatively, that we used the blood of Christian children in our matzahs, depending on which priest you consulted"), and remain unaware of modern technology and culture. Outside contact is limited to occasional visits from a Roma caravan until a recently divorced Kreskol woman runs away, her ex-husband follows, and baker's apprentice Yankel Lewinkopf is sent by the rabbi to find them. Traveling with the Roma, Yankel reaches the city of Smolskie, where his confusion and strange behavior land him in a mental ward. Doctors think Yankel may be delusional when he talks about his village, while Yankel has an equally hard time believing the doctors who tell him about the Holocaust. Finally, Yankel is helicoptered back home, accompanied by officials and reporters, and Kreskol must contend with its new fame and all the attendant complications. The narrator, a present-day villager, is well versed in Jewish traditions and human foibles, alternately reminiscent of early Isaac Bashevis Singer and a Catskills comedian. Gross's entertaining, sometimes disquieting tale delivers laugh-out-loud moments and deep insight on human foolishness, resilience, and faith.