“It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” reports Aron Różycki, the child protagonist of J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature, and Eloquence Jim Shepard’s haunting new novel, The Book of Aron. Clear-eyed and self-effacing, Aron trudges through life as a Jew in the World War II Warsaw ghetto with a kind of stark unsentimentality. The result is a book that is devastatingly deadpan, observing tragedy after tragedy.
On Monday evening in Griffin Hall, Shepard read three excerpts from The Book of Aron to a captive audience. In addition to being a senior lecturer in the English department, Shepard is the acclaimed author of six previous novels and four short story collections, most recently You Think That’s Bad and Like You’d Understand, Anyway. He is known for his well-researched stories and sardonic first-person voice. The Book of Aron is neither Shepard’s first piece of historical fiction, nor his first attempt at an adolescent point of view. But it is his most ambitious project to date, and likely his best.
Despite Monday night’s heavy source material, Shepard was quite jovial, joking and laughing with the crowd. “I’m the only person [my wife] knows who takes a bio of a French executioner to the beach,” he quipped, in answer to the type of research he had to undertake in order to write this book. Shepard didn’t set out to write a Holocaust novel. Instead, he got the idea from a former student to write about Janusz Korczak, the acclaimed Polish-Jewish educator and orphanage director. “If my students come across something which is too weird for a normal human being,” Shepard joked, “they send it to me.” Shortly after getting an email about the student’s idea, Shepard began reading every Polish-Jewish autobiography he could get his hands on. He came upon the story of a Jewish mother who stayed alive until she managed to get Korczak to accept her son into his orphanage. The son, blaming Korczak for her death, never forgave him. “And I started thinking to myself, ‘What would that be like?’” Shepard mused aloud to the audience. Enter Aron Różycki, and the start of the Holocaust novel Shepard never meant to write.
Reading the author’s previous work, it’s impossible not to dwell on what Shepard is sacrificing by taking on such a limited perspective: lyricism, higher processing abilities and his writer’s vocabulary, for starters. One child can only observe so much of the Holocaust, giving us what Shepard himself called a “mole’s eye view of this over-trammeled subject.” Aron’s clipped, childlike observations must have been undeniably restrictive for a writer of Shepard’s linguistic ability. But the result is something all the more powerful for its confinement: Aron wields the candid self-awareness of childhood within a horrifying context. In many ways, Aron is the ultimate Holocaust protagonist, observing tragedies without heavy-handed emotional registration, his language often working more to relay action rather than convey acute feeling. “Whether I was happy or unhappy,” the boy denotes matter-of-factly, “I took things as I found them.”
Of course, it’s a testament to Shepard’s prolific talent as both a writer and a researcher that Aron’s voice is so convincing. The Book of Aron has found incredible critical success as a result, as a finalist for both the 2015 Kirkus Prize and the Andrew Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He’s one of the College’s most popular teachers, too, as evidenced by the number of Shepard’s own students who turned out in support on Monday night, crowding up after his performance to ask him to sign everything from book jackets to clementines. But, as Senior Lecturer in English Andrea Barrett noted in her witty and effusive introduction, “Wonderful teaching is simply what Jim [Shepard] does with his left hand.”
With his right, Jim Shepard has written one of the most hauntingly powerful Holocaust novels to date, a book as admirable for its range of expression as it is for its impressive restraint. Unflinching, uncompromising and entirely fearless, The Book of Aron is one of those rare historical novels that feels more authentic than the truth.