Book Review – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Finding a new author that I enjoy reading is a little like visiting a really cool city for the first time. You’re excited, you’re so happy you’ve come, you’re a little overwhelmed by all the exploration you have ahead of you.

You go home or you finish your book and you keep those fond memories. You tell your friends and family. You look over your photographs or you remember the best scenes and characters and you feel thankful for the experience. You start to think about going back. Or about reading another book by that author. But you wonder: Can the second time ever match up to the first?

All that preamble to say, I read a second book by Michael Chabon, who I recently read for the first time and realized why his wife loves him so much. I actually had a copy of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union out of the library before we left Chilliwack but ran out of time to read it. So imagine my delight when I saw a copy in a thrift store in Gibsons. $2 later, it was mine. It didn’t disappoint.

The premise of the novel is best described as kind of bizarre. The story takes place in an alternate universe where the nation of Israel fell apart in 1948 and a district was set up in Alaska for Jews. Now, 60 years later, this District of Sitka is set to revert to American rule and many of the Jews will be forced to relocate from the only home they’ve known. Who thinks up that kind of premise? It’s brilliant. Throughout the novel we are given hints as to other ways this world is different from our own. Those differences include everything from a nuclear bombing of Berlin, to the marriage of JFK and Marilyn Monroe.

I will admit that I’m not overly familiar with Judaism. Most of what I know about this religion comes from the Old Testament and/or Hollywood. While reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union I kept consulting Wikipedia to see if Chabon had just made things up or if they were true. I have a feeling that if you knew Jewish culture there would be some good jokes in this book. I did love the mixture of traditional Judaism (black hats and side curls) with Alaskan stereotypes of plaid shirts and work boots. Picture all that on one person – that’s the District of Sitka. Chabon’s descriptions were vivid and real, easy to imagine even while seeming absurd.

Our main character is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, chess-hating detective who lives in a dingy hotel and whose ex-wife just became his boss. Yep, throw some hard-boiled detective stereotypes in the mix too.

Which isn’t to say that the novel or its characters are stereotypes. Not at all. Landsman’s partner is Berko Shemets, a half-Jewish, half-Tlingit who looks Native American but has embraced his Jewish roots fully. Berko embodies all the tension that exists in the District of Sitka between the Tlingit and the Jewish populations. My personal favourite character was the boundary maven, a man who lives and works in the Orthodox community. Their religious precepts rely on him yet he remains an outsider. He knows every hidden corner and every telephone pole but he doesn’t know what he believes.

Over all of this ticks the countdown of Sitka’s status. Time is running out and everyone is preparing in a different way. Parts of the ending felt too neatly wrapped up. Other parts were a complete surprise, packing all the punch that such events would carry in real life. Chabon creates an ending that seems realistic, even in our world.

I’ll be reading my next Chabon book as soon as I can get my hands on one.

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