By Cindy Mindell
Award-winning American novelist Joshua Ferris calls fellow writer Jim Shepard “my hero” and hails him as one of the country’s “finest writers, full of wit, humanity, and fearless curiosity.”
Known for his deeply-researched historical fiction, Shepard recently published his seventh novel, The Book of Aron, about children caught up in the Holocaust. The Connecticut native will discuss his work at the Byram Shubert Library in Greenwich on Tuesday, Oct. 27.
The book has evoked descriptors like “extraordinary,” “masterpiece,” “brilliant,” and “knock-out” from reviewers across the globe. The author John Irving wrote, “Jim Shepard has written a Holocaust novel that stands with the most powerful writing on that terrible subject.”
Since 1983, Shepard, who grew up in the Lordship area of Stratford, has taught creative writing and film at Williams College, where he is the J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature, and Eloquence.
His fiction has been published in a variety of periodicals. Four of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories, and one for a Pushcart Prize. His third of four published short-story collections, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, won The Story Prize in 2007, and was nominated for a National Book Award that same year. His 2004 novel, Project X, won the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction and the American Library Association’s ALEX Award.
The Book of Aron is narrated by a young Jewish boy whose family is driven by the Nazi invasion from the Polish countryside into Warsaw and is soon walled in by the ghetto. Aron and a handful of other children risk their lives by scuttling around the ghetto to smuggle and trade contraband through the quarantine walls, in hopes of keeping their respective families alive. All the while, they are hunted by blackmailers and by Jewish, Polish, and German police, as well as by the Gestapo. Aron describes a brutal and uncertain world reduced to deprivation, disease, and fear of the unknown.
He is rescued by Janusz Korczak (the pen-name of Henrik Goldszmit), a Polish-Jewish pediatrician renowned throughout pre-war Europe as an advocate of children’s rights and the director of the Dom Sierot orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. With the Nazi invasion, Korczak was forced to move the orphanage into the Warsaw Ghetto, and remained with his young charges when the ghetto was liquidated. With the specter of Treblinka hanging over the orphans and their adult caregivers, does Aron manage to escape – as his mentor encourages him to do – to spread word about Nazi atrocities?
“I was struck, going back through Janusz Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, by a sense of how difficult it must have been for the children in the orphanage, many of whom hated being there — even as they understood that it had saved them, however temporarily,” Shepard says. “And I was struck by how terribly conflicted they must have been about that. That sense of being the child who, for whatever reason, made a saint’s life harder – that sense of feeling as though you’re not adequately appreciating what you have been given, and in so doing you’re making it harder for people you love and admire. That was a conflict I could relate to. That was my starting point for the construction of Aron’s inner life.”
To create the perspective of the child narrator, Shepard says that he immersed himself in many primary sources, as evidenced by the lengthy bibliography in the novel. “And I channeled my own inner sad and angry boy as well,” he says.
How did Shepard weather the weightiest of subject matter that he chose to explore?
“To write about material like this you have to be empathetic, of course, which means that much of what you come across is so wrenching that it makes you want to lie face down on the floor for a while,” he says. “But you also are aware that you’re building an aesthetic object, so there’s also another side of you that’s detached and measures everything it comes across in terms of its usefulness to the project. That detached side helps keep you going, I think. I hope [the novel] serves as a visceral reminder to those who read it of all those people that no one took to be special or extraordinary who were ALSO swept up in the genocide.”
The Book of Aron with author Jim Shepard: Tuesday, Oct. 27, 4 PM, Byram Shubert Library, 21 Mead Ave, Greenwich | Info: (203) 531-0426 / greenwichlibrary.org