The Book of Aron: Atrocities sweetened for children

There is a growing genre of children's fiction about the Holocaust.


There is a growing genre of children's fiction about the Holocaust. In the past 10 years or so, we have had huge best-sellers like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Now we have Jim Shepard's The Book of Aron (Quercus, £18.99).

Aron Rozycki is not especially good or heroic; right from the opening paragraph we are told how he always gets into trouble. Born near the Lithuanian border in 1936, he moves with his family to Warsaw, where his father scrapes a living and his mother washes other people's floors. "Years went by," he says, "like one unhappy day."

Then the Germans invade Warsaw and Aron ends up in the ghetto with his family. He forms a gang with some other boys and two girls, Zofia and Adina, smuggling food into the ghetto to feed his family or sell on the black market.

Two adults start to loom large in Aron's story. There is Lajkin, the Jewish policeman, a figure of compromise, who looks after number one and offers Aron the chance to work with the ghetto police. There is also the legendary Janusz Korczak, "with his bald head and yellowish goatee, "a saintly man who directed a children's orphanage in the ghetto. If Lajkin is the voice of compromise, Korczak is the embodiment of uncompromising moral integrity. Which way will Aron turn?

Shepard's short novel, narrated by Aron, reads at a lick.

'Aron has read widely and carries his research lightly'

Shepard, as in his previous historical novels, has done his research well. He has read widely and carries his research lightly. He shows how rumours, stolen goods and typhus circulate through the ghetto and he has a good eye for detail. An acclaimed American writer with six previous novels and four collections of stories to his name, Shepard does his best to take the melodrama and sentimentality out of his subject but his version of Korczak is straight out of the Robin Williams school of secular saints. Aron is meant to be a Huck Finn-style rough diamond but he, too, becomes increasingly heroic.

The novel comes weighed down with praise from the likes of Roddy Doyle, Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon. With all due respect to these excellent writers, this really should stop. Quite well-written, quite good novels about the Holocaust are not acceptable. With a very few exceptions, the only Holocaust fiction worth a damn is by survivors who experienced the camps.

In the past few decades, we have had kitsch and soft-core pornography; novelists writing best-selling children's fiction turned into even more popular films; and a ghastly world of pious and sentimental hokum. The Holocaust is not a subject to be turned into middlebrow fiction and it is time reviewers and readers started to say so.

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