1.19.2010

LiB Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Based on a discussion at a Madison coffee shop over the holidays, this is the first of a new feature here at LiB. In an effort to branch out a little bit and expand the diversity of our content, each month one of us will offer a book review from our personal reading lists.

This inaugural edition of the LiB Book Review features a great novel: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon.

Easily one of the best modern novels I've read, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is set in an alternate-history where a plan pushed by Secretary of State Harold Ickes in 1940 to resettle European Jews - as refugees - in the Alaskan Territory was successful. In addition, the state of Israel failed in 1948 and made the Sitka settlement the closest thing to a homeland the Jewish people had. The story itself is set in the present-day when the settlement is about to be returned to Alaska and its native population. Once again, the Jews of Sitka are faced with the prospect of not having a home.

The hero of the book is detective Meyer Landsman, a man who was once the pride of the Sitka police department, but is now a a borderline alcoholic, living in a flophouse, haunted by the memories of better days. A drug addict is killed in the same hotel in which Landsman lives, and draws him into solving a crime that is nothing like it first appears.

Michael Chabon's writing is nothing short of incredible. He paints a very realistic setting and cast of characters. He takes a simple detective story - a genre that is nothing new in the literary world - and transforms it into a rich and complex world that goes much deeper than a mere "whodunit." He surpasses the usual assembly-line novels that popular authors turn out and reaches the level of true literature.

Because the story is set in an alternate history, Chabon leaves hints and clues in the dialogue and the setting as to what happened in this timeline. Israel failed as a state. The Cold War was much hotter than the one we know. Once again, the Jewish people face the prospect of losing their homeland. There is much, much more that is hinted at, in bits and pieces for the reader to put together.

Chabon's novel is also rich with Jewish culture - the dialect, the customs, everything is tied to Jewish identity. If you're unfamiliar with Jewish history the author thankfully includes a glossary of terms - and his own creation of "Sitka slang" - to help out. Through the inclusion of such rich cultural elements Chabon is able to create a more real and believable narrative and it is limited solely to the interactions of the Sitka Jews, but also their relationship with the native Alaskan population and the rest of the United States.

The story itself starts out a little slow, but gains speed as it goes and becomes a page-turner. What impresses me most is the way in which Chabon is able to create a very compelling - and by know means simple - detective story and at the same time create a narrative of a completely fictional history. He uses his characters incredibly well to tell the story and their history themselves. He avoids a third person narrative almost completely when the history of Sitka is told. It allows a much more believable story to unfold.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a phenomenal book. Chabon is a great writer and proof that American literature is alive and well. I'd love to say more, but I don't want to give too much of the book away. I promise you won't be disappointed.