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John Wilson

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Michael Chabon's new book is his first full-length novel for grown-ups since his Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, seven years ago. In the interim, he's published—among other things—a novel for kids (and their parents), Summerland (Alan Jacobs sings the praises of this book on Vol. 59 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal); and a superb novella, The Final Solution, featuring an aged Sherlock Holmes reluctantly drawn out of retirement.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the best new novel I've read so far this year, and I won't be surprised if it wins another Pulitzer or some comparable recognition. It is also a deeply frustrating book—at least I found it so, for reasons elaborated below. If you think you might read it, turn the page right now and come back to this column only after you've finished the book.

That disclaimer out of the way, on to business. In 1938, FDR's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, proposed that Alaska might serve as a haven for European refugees, including Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany. The purpose was twofold: humanitarian, yes, but also to promote development in that region. The president was on board, but Ickes' proposal didn't fly.

Somehow or other that obscure historical datum caught Chabon's magpie eye. Did he know immediately that he had found an irresistible premise for a novel in the alternative history vein? Did he do a little dance of celebration? Did he foresee even then the giddy metaphysical wit of the cover-art? I don't know. But he did write a novel imagining that the fledging State of Israel died in 1948, only three months after its birth, when "the outnumbered Jews … were routed, massacred, and driven into the sea." Where did the survivors turn? Many looked to Alaska, where—thanks to Ickes and the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940—some of their fellow Jews had already emigrated.

So many, in fact, that by 1948 there were already two million Jews in Sitka and its environs. ...

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