Jim Shephard’s novel “The Book of Aron” is an unsparing account of one orphan’s experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Shepard reads Wednesday, June 17, at the Seattle Public Library.

Share story

‘The Book of Aron’

by Jim Shepard

Knopf, 260 pp., $23.95

If a child has never known any world but the one he’s in, how does he know what’s normal?

In Jim Shepard’s remarkable novel, “The Book of Aron,” Aron Rózycki, a Jewish boy trapped with his family in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazi invasion of Poland, confronts that question repeatedly. He adjusts and adjusts — to loss, deprivation and trauma — until he has adjusted himself to the brink of death.

Aron’s story is one of brutal attrition. As all the props preserving his life and his sense of self are demolished one by one, survival for him becomes a ruthless, compromising, unpredictable business.

Author appearance

Jim Shepard

The author of “The Book of Aron” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 17, at the main branch of The Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Copresented by the Washington Center for the Book and the Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).

“What seemed secure one day,” he says, “was a soap bubble the next.”

Shepard, in a recent interview, said he was moved to write “Aron” by extensive reading he had done on the Warsaw Ghetto and children’s experience of the war. He also wanted to counteract the effect of books and films about the Holocaust (he cites Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” as an example) in which “everybody you care about is going to be saved. … I think you should come to the end of a Holocaust text shaken on behalf of our species.”

“The Book of Aron” achieves that effect through unexpected strategies, starting with the misfit character of Aron himself. In the opening 20 pages, before the Nazi invasion, the dynamic between Aron and his family (harsh father, sympathetic but exasperated mother) vividly conveys a boy with behavioral problems that upset him as much as they upset his elders.

“It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he says. “I had figured out that most people didn’t understand me and that those who did wouldn’t help.”

By his early teens, he’s a petty thief, a scavenger, a half-unwitting Gestapo collaborator. To a limited extent, that helps him cope with the loss of his entire family and many friends. When he lands in an orphanage run by real-life children’s-rights crusader Janusz Korczak, he finds a fleeting sanctuary in a place believed by some to be “so famous that the Germans would never touch it.”

This proves untrue.

Shepard has distilled his meticulous research into a swift, savage narrative made somewhat bearable by the way that Aron’s observations are unvarnished to the point of being deadpan. (“The soldiers seemed to never be sure where they wanted everyone to line up,” he remarks at one point. “They enjoyed herding people from place to place.”)

The construction of the imprisoning wall around the Warsaw Ghetto; the elaborate bureaucracy that had German, Polish and Jewish police forces collaborating under duress to carry out Hitler’s agenda; the lice, the bedbugs, the food shortages, the spread of typhus and the increasingly capricious executions of ghetto dwellers — all register in Aron’s mind as a numbing nightmare in which atrocities masquerade as the new norm.

Shepard’s lightest, grimmest touch: A German officer who deludes himself into thinking he’s somehow kinder than his actions.

“The Book of Aron” is not, to put it mildly, a straightforward pleasure to read. But it’s so rigorous and adroit in its handling of its horrific subject matter, it makes you want to investigate everything else Shepard has written.