cover image The Book of Aron

The Book of Aron

Jim Shepard. Knopf, $22.95 (262p) ISBN 978-1-101-87431-8

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. (May)