I have wanted to read a book by Michael Chabon for many years. His book The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2001 and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) is an alternative history and noir detective novel that imagines a world in which four million lives were saved by allowing persecuted Jewish immigrants to settle in Alaska, starting in 1940. The latter book’s alternate-history premise was based on a failed proposal, The Problem of Alaskan Development, that was produced by the United States Department of the Interior under Secretary Harold L. Ickes. Add in some starred reviews, a mystery, and enough library copies of the book, and I was excited for our book club’s discussion of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Even so, I am never certain how a discussion will go. Sometimes, I know a book will be well-received, but the discussion falls flat. Perhaps there is a lot of enthusiasm – I hated it, I loved it, or it was boring—but not much more, especially if it is foreign to us, diverse, unrelatable.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was a great discussion, even though some of us couldn’t finish it. I had one member set a goal of 15 pages a day and found herself researching so much that it was difficult for her to get past ten pages! I struggled up until Chapter 16 and the entrance of Rabbi Heskel Shpilman, “a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. . .” The mystery finally grabbed me, though I continued to skim through some of the long, beautifully detailed descriptions, if only to be finished in time for our discussion.
Carol B.’s research and enthusiasm was contagious to me and I hope for others also. We loved the Boundary Maven, Willie Dick, Bina, and were fascinated by the complexity and brilliance of the author. One of us had read it before and liked it better on a second reading. Another member, who likes most of our choices, even the most unusual, hadn’t been able to appreciate this one. But our discussion was thoughtful and challenging. I know at least one member, afterwards, was going to try reading it again.
We discussed so much more than I have included here. History. Relationships. Language. Detectives. Believability. Religion. Human rights. Human nature. I almost didn’t write this recap. Sometimes it seems like a disservice to capture only part of a discussion, to leave out names, to show only my perspective. I hope this snapshot triggers at least the memory of pleasant evening, spent on the stage in the Whitney Library Theater, with seventeen lovely people, on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017.
- Other Works Discussed:
- Genius (2016 DVD) about Thomas Wolfe and his editor
- The Man in the High Castle (1962) Philip K. Dick
- The Plot Against America (2004) Philip Roth
- Author Harry Turtledove (alternate history fiction)
- Author Isaac Bashevis Singer
- The Language of Lost History by Michael Chabon: (From “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts”) Harper’s Magazine. Oct97, Vol. 295 Issue 1769, p32. 2p. 1 Color Photograph.
- Q&A Michael Chabon (April 2016): http://forward.com/culture/books/339119/qa-michael-chabon-talks-occupation-injustice-and-literature-after-visit-to/
 Web accessed 5/01/2017: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slattery_Report. I have a copy of the report, dated April 1940, that I received through our library’s interlibrary loan program. The report is 70 pages, including photographs.