Michael Chabon's latest novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," is a what-if story about a Jewish homeland in Alaska.
Look up Michael Chabon’s Web site (www.michaelchabon.com) and all you’ll find — apart from his travel schedule — is a poster for the 1977 Sitka World’s Fair.
“The 1977 Sitka World’s Fair?” you might ask. “Did I miss that one?”
No, you didn’t, because it never happened — but you won’t want to miss the novel in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) dreams up that “Expo ’77.”
It’s called “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (HarperCollins, 414 pp., $26.95), and though it was released just two weeks ago, it’s already No. 2 on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list for fiction. It’s a detective story set in a bustling Jewish city-state in the Alaskan Panhandle. Chabon’s alternative history imagines a world in which Palestine never became Israel, Berlin got A-bombed instead of Japan and Marilyn Monroe apparently married a Kennedy.
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In this Yiddish-speaking Federal District of Sitka — created shortly after World War II and about to revert to Alaska after 60 years of semi-autonomy — Hasidic communities thrive and Tlingit-Sitkanik tensions simmer. The place is a backwater, but the murder that its detective-hero is investigating may be part of a plot that could put Sitka in the international headlines.
In a phone interview last week, I asked the former Seattleite (Chabon lived here from 1989 to 1991) how he created his own very special Sitka.
Q: Where did the idea for a Jewish homeland in Alaska come from?
Michael Chabon reads from “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” 7 p.m. Tuesday the 15th, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com) and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday the 16th, Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
A: Well, there was an actual proposal put forward during the Roosevelt era, just before the U.S. entered the Second World War. Around 1940, the Interior Department under Harold Ickes proposed opening Alaska to settlement by European war refugees, most of whom were Jews. It got introduced as a bill in committee in Congress but died there and obviously never came to pass.
Q: Was Ickes’ plan specifically for the Sitka area?
A: There were four regions that were proposed for this refugee settlement. I don’t recall what the other ones were, but they were all much more remote and more barren and colder than the Sitka area, which was one of the four. I had already done a whole Antarctic section in “Kavalier & Clay,” and I just didn’t feel like coming up with more synonyms for “barren.” Sitka at least sounded like it was in the same general biome as Seattle, and I might be able to relate to it, having lived up there. Then when I went to Sitka, I discovered there was this definite kinship.
Q: Did you go up there before you started writing?
A: Yeah, just to check it all out and try to decide where to set the novel. What I loved about Sitka was that the whole nomenclature of the place is Russian … the names of the mountains and the islands. So it immediately gave this Sholem Aleichem flavor to any story I was going to set there. [Aleichem is the great Russian-Yiddish writer who lived from 1859 to 1916.] Even the name Sitka itself sounds like it could be a Yiddish word.
Q: When I started the book and saw “Sitkaniks,” I wondered if this was what Sitka residents were really called. But, no, they’re called “Sitkans.”
A: “Sitkaniks” sounds good, doesn’t it?
Q: On your Web site I see you’ve created a poster for the 1977 Sitka World’s Fair. Are there any other artifacts you’ve created for the book?
A: I do have a few other things and just haven’t had time to sit down and get them posted. There’s a souvenir felt pennant of the Federal District of Sitka. And there’s a “Greetings from Sitka” postcard.
Q: Did you draw any detailed city maps or transit plans?
A: No transit plans. But I did make maps of Sitka. I sensed I could get sucked in very easily to doing beautifully rich, detailed maps of Sitka and environs, so I tried to be strict with myself and just made crude pencil sketches that aren’t much to look at, to try to figure out where everything was.
Q: You also have some land reclamation going on up there. Did you take your inspiration from Dutch reclamation of land from the sea?
A: No, more from living in Seattle. I remember reading how all the hills in Seattle were graded and then the dirt was carried off and used to make infill. Up in Sitka, I was immediately confronted with the fact that the mountains come right down to the water and the amount of level, buildable space is very limited. And yet there is this shallow bay, full of tiny islands — and it just seemed like it would be a natural candidate for fill.
Q: If you had to construct an alternative history for Seattle, what would it be?
A: Well, just imagine if they had called it “New York Alki” [an early name for the city, meaning “New York by-and-by”]? Would it have come up to be more of a New York-like city, simply by virtue of having that name applied to it?
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com