For his ninth birthday, Aron Rozycki, a heedless Jewish boy who had recently moved to Warsaw with his family, was feted with a raisin cake. No cake would be in the offing for his 10th birthday, as tragedy had struck the Rozycki household in the intervening year, and his mother was in no mood. If Aron had anything of note to remember about his 10th, he could thank the Germans, who chose that week to invade Poland.
Perhaps, you may be thinking, you already know more than you care to about the miseries that would shortly befall Polish Jews like the Rozyckis. To be sure, I approached "The Book of Aron" with a mixture of trepidation and abundant admiration for its author, Jim Shepard, who has elicited praise and cavils alike for his brazen agility at plumbing landscapes that far exceed the limits of his view and academic perch in Williamstown. Certainly it requires a particular mettle to squire a reader from 14th-century France to the set of a 1950s Japanese sci-fi flick to a heaven-scraping peak in Islamabad, as Shepard, who teaches creative writing and film at Williams College, did with such éclat in his last book.
The title of that story collection, "You Think That's Bad," could serve as a community lament for the characters limned in "The Book of Aron," who, once the Germans roll in, are repeatedly compelled to reset their bar of well-being as they adjust to daily diminishing freedoms. Proclamations are issued to Warsaw's Jews with incremental stealth: first the yellow armbands, then the restricted trolleys, then three trolleys are reduced to just one (emblazoned, like the armbands, with a star of David). Brick walls go up; markets on one side are made off limits; families must cram into flats with other families. Attempts to comply with the ever-morphing order become futile: "But no one knew what worked and what didn't and what seemed secure one day was a soap bubble the next."
This agonizing process is filtered through the risibly self-deprecating voice of Shepard's title character, a boy with a penchant for tears and a divining rod for predicaments. "My mother and father named me Aron," he announces in the book's opening passages, "but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking." While he elicits more sympathy from his mother, a laundress, even she admonishes him that "too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart."
Aron's unquestioning nature, coupled with a cipher-like tendency to recede into the woodwork, render him easy fodder for the ghetto's enterprising no-goodniks. As shortages beset the neighborhood, he aligns himself with a rough-and-tumble band of adolescent black marketers who smuggle in everything from bread to surplus bags of cement left over from building the ghetto walls. At the same time, Aron is bullied into service as an informer for the Gestapo's "anti-crime unit" by Lejkin, a Jewish police factotum whose instinct for self-preservation is only exceeded by the impulse to emulate the enemy he serves. When Lejkin gets wise to Aron's smuggling operation, instead of arresting him, he puts in an order for a bootjack.
Inevitably, Aron's conflictingly subversive activities put him on a collision course with dire consequences for his young partners in survival.
Shepard, in his stark depiction of the ways in which children under duress in a traumatized world replicate the amorality of the dominant culture, succinctly deploys the tools of realism to navigate that dark zone previously charted in such indelible allegorical works as William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" and Michael Haneke's film masterpiece "The White Ribbon."
Intervention, if not redemption, arrives by means of Aron's blooming alliance with Janusz Korczak, a real-life doctor and educational reformer whose heroic advocacy for children's rights made him, in the words of one character, "the safest Jew in the ghetto." Aron plays Sancho Panza to this irresistibly quixotic figure as he accompanies Korczak on his rounds throughout the increasingly perilous ghetto streets, squeezing donations for his innovative orphanage. If Aron owns the rights to the book's seductive narrative voice, it is Korczak who embodies its enveloping humanity. With affecting teamwork, a feckless boy with little conscience and an aging man with a surfeit of humility walk into the fire, lifting "The Book of Aron" into a realm with the finest Holocaust fiction.
THE BOOK OF ARON
By Jim Shepard; Knopf. 260 pp. $23.95
Jan Stuart, author of "The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece,'' can be reached at email@example.com.