On one level, this book is a standard detective story, with nods to noir film and at least one name-check for Raymond Chandler. The protagonist is a hard-drinking policeman who cracks wise and has trouble with dames (well, at least one dame), and takes an enormous amount of physical abuse in the course of performing his duties... duties which he often defines more broadly than his supervisors really expect. Sound familiar?
On another level, it's a science fiction novel, taking for its setting a parallel world that treads the already over-trampled ground of World War II (or thereabouts) as a pivot point. Again, a pretty familar trope.
Add a third ingredient, though - a deep and warmly sympathetic perspective on Jewish culture from the inside out - and a fourth, the accomplished talent of Michael Chabon - and the intersection of these cliches turns into much more than the sum of its parts.
I was tremendously impressed with this book. The detective mystery provides a suspenseful (and cinematic) skeleton for the story - down-at-the-heels shammes (cognate to "shamus," of course) Meyer Landsman is obsessed by the murder of a junkie chess player who lives in his rundown residence hotel, and even though he's ordered to close the case he can't stop trying to solve it. This alone would make a pretty good movie (and, it would appear, the Coen brothers think so too).
The niftiest thing about The Yiddish Policemen's Union for me, though, is its background, the world in which it's set: a plausible but entirely bizarre alternate universe originating from one tiny, obscure but significant change, in the best tradition of such parallel worlds.
In our universe, Anthony Dimond was Alaskan territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 to 1945. In 1940, midway through that career, Dimond was instrumental in defeating a plan that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was really considering: to make part of Alaska an international Jewish homeland.
In Chabon's alternity, Dimond was killed in a car accident before he could dissuade Roosevelt, and the District of Sitka was formally established in 1941.
The changes this evokes are far-reaching and entirely plausible. The existence of an alternative refuge, even one as forbidding as Alaska, saves millions of Jews from the Nazis... but it also strengthens the Axis nations and lengthens WWII, and siphons off many of those who would otherwise have been instrumental in the founding of modern Israel, and so that effort fails in 1948. Jerusalem becomes a Muslim city in an Arab land, and Sitka is the place where Jews go to build a nation.
Sixty years later, the District of Sitka is a thriving country of 3.2 million people, but it's facing a deadline: Reversion. Sitka was never intended to be a permanent nation, after all, and it's getting harder to ignore Native calls for the return of at least part of their territory (there were, after all, people in Alaska before the U.S. began handing out parts of it to refugees). Now, the "frozen Chosen," as they call themselves (more nifty worldbuilding on Chabon's part), have to find somewhere else to go. The question looms darkly behind everything Meyer Landsman and his compatriots do... and the answers Sitka's residents have come up with range from Madagascar to, of course, the ever-populous nation of Denial. But not everyone is so complacent or accepting of the status quo...
There's really no way to do justice to this complex book in a short review. You'll just have to read it if you want the full flavor. Highly recommended.
Sources used in the composition of this review:
Wikipedia's articles on Anthony Dimond and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and
SF blog IO9's posts on Chabon.
©2008 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated June 7, 2008.