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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Jim Shepard’s seventh novel depicts the streets of Warsaw, where a child named Aron is faced with the escalating brutality of the Holocaust. As everything he knows is stripped away, Aron is forced to adapt to smuggling, sickness, and death. Cautiously and with reverence, Shepard bears witness to the residents of an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and a real-life doctor named Janusz Korczak. Told through the unadorned language of a child, The Book of Aron is heartbreaking and haunting.
Shepard (You Think That's Bad) 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. 50,000-copy first printing.