Jim Shepard

The Book Of Aron

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The Book Of Aron Summary

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The Book of Aron: a Novel (2015), by American novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard, follows a thirteen-year-old boy’s experience through the Holocaust and the relationship he forms with the selfless head of a Polish orphanage. Shepard was inspired by the true story of Dr. James Korczak. Considered to be one of America’s best living writers, The Book of Aron is Shepard’s seventh novel.

Its themes include bravery, sacrifice, and tragedy. The novel was praised for its sparing, deadpan tone that mimics a child’s viewpoint and differs from most of Shepard’s literary writing. Unlike many Holocaust novels that feature upper- or middle-class Jewish people, the characters here are lower class.

As the novel opens, Aron is reviewing his life up to this moment; he is thirteen, orphaned, and living in a Jewish ghetto. Aron grew up in the countryside with the rest of his family. He says he’s bad at school, has next to zero friends, and he can’t express himself well to those he loves, including his mother, who tried (and failed) to teach him the alphabet when he was four.

He attends Jewish school (kheyder) but doesn’t learn anything because the teacher smells terrible and is always eager to smack one of his pupils. When he enters public school, he develops an interest in books, as he has nothing better to do and no friends to talk with.

During the summer, Aron joins his father in a cotton factory in Warsaw, but Aron’s mind tends to wander away from his work, and his father doesn’t hesitate to beat him.

His brother, around four years younger than Aron, is frequently sick and nervous around just about everything. Because he has to babysit his brother, Aron becomes familiar with various radio programs at home. One of them is by Dr. James Korczak, a pediatrician. Aron loves Korczak’s radio program because he never knows what to expect. Some days, “the good doctor” interviews orphans; other days, he recites a fairy tale or talks about how airplanes fly.

One day, the German troops advance to the countryside. His family evacuates into the city of Warsaw, and in the ensuing chaos, they are separated. They are filtered into a Jewish ghetto. There, they encounter constant discrimination, as well as disease and starvation.

At first, Aron thinks it’s fun to have no school and to be able to play all day in bombed-out buildings. But then the physical conditions become unbearable. At one point, he says there are so many lice, it looks like he has gray hair.

To support his family and keep himself alive, Aron resorts to petty crime. At first, his mother says stealing is wrong; Aron retorts with “starving is wrong.”

He also agrees to smuggle illegal items in and out of the ghetto. Crossing the ghetto wall and hiding valuable items from the Nazis are crimes punishable by death. The Germans steal everything of value and send it to Germany. This leaves little medicine, food, or reasons to live for the local population.

Despite his efforts, Aron’s frail brother dies. Then his parents are forced into a rail cart and sent to a concentration camp, the location of which Aron doesn’t know.

Aron, guided by a child’s selfishness and instinct for preservation, gives information to the Gestapo when advantageous for himself. Aron had been working with one charming Jewish officer, but now he regrets collaborating and wants to distance himself. After he sees someone in his situation murdered by this officer, Aron realizes that he is going to die unless someone helps him.  “The yellow police” (collaborating Jews who assist the occupying forces in running the ghetto) are on the lookout for Aron.

It’s during these most desperate times that Aron meets Dr. James Korczak, the pediatrician and former radio show host, who has been managing an orphanage of hundreds of children since the start of the war. Using his influence, Korczak shields Aron from the various groups who would have him murdered.

Though Dr. Korczak is well connected and respected, life inside his orphanage is still horrible. To imagine that they’re not cold or starving, the doctor has the children complete a series of games that ask for them to imagine themselves in a more beautiful situation. Even “The Good Doctor” (another of his nicknames) occasionally becomes so frustrated with his situation that he snaps at the children. He’s dedicated his life to loving others, but he still finds that noble pursuit to be challenging. With whatever amount of life he has left, Aron decides he will act like Dr. Korczak.

Aron tries to pull some strings to keep “Mr. Doctor” from deportation to Treblinka, a concentration camp. But the doctor doesn’t listen to Aron (as he doesn’t listen to his other friends, some of whom offered to pay him to stay in Warsaw while the children were carted to Treblinka). So, in the summer of 1942, nearly 200 starving kids were sent to die in a concentration camp. Dr. Korczak goes with them to remain their primary comfort until the very end. It’s unclear whether or not Aron survives.