#BeatTheBacklist book 3
2017 book 3
Format: Print (paperback)
Length: 411 pages
In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, proposed that Alaska be used as a “haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions.” This proposal did not have the president’s full support and it never took hold as a viable option.
Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is set in an alternate America that accepted Ickes’s proposal. In this reality, part of the state of Alaska became a temporary Jewish homeland with a built in 60 year expiration date, after which time the land and its governance revert back to the United States. Also in this alternate timeline, the state of Israel never gains a foothold, JFK is not assassinated, and Manchuria develops a space program. For starters.
What It’s About – No Spoilers
The setting, as already partly described, is Alaska in an alternate year 2000. The Jewish settlement is on the brink of reversion and Meyer Landsman is a divorced, alcoholic homicide detective with no plans for what’s next. As soon as we meet the detective, we also meet the dead body. Landsman and his partner, who is also his half Indian cousin, begin a straightforward investigation of a murdered junkie that ends up being anything but straightforward. The dead junkie turns out to be a pivotal figure in a conspiracy involving Jewish gangsters, messianic prophets, secret government agencies, and members of Landsman’s family. In case that isn’t complicated enough, Landsman’s ex-wife, for whom he still carries a torch, is also his commanding officer.
What I Thought – Spoiler-ish
There were things I loved about this book. The alternate timeline for one. I didn’t know anything about the Slattery report before reading this book and I spent a good bit of time following down a wikipedia hole to learn more about it. In real life there was an Alaskan representative, Anthony Dimond, who opposed the proposal and was one of the key reasons that it never got off the ground. Chabon’s timeline supposes he was killed in a car accident/assassinated by the US government allowing the proposal to gain traction. He then constructs a logically sound domino effect that results in first lady Marilyn Monroe and the establishment of a Jewish state in Alaska.
Another thing I loved about this book is that it was written by Michael Chabon and, like everything he writes, is just delicious. Open to any random page and you will find sentences like, “Here and there they stop to knit and unravel the skeins of breath that tangle them together.” I can’t get enough of that sentence. And if you want something with a little more of a tragically human air, try this one on for size, “She is getting old, and he is getting old, right on schedule, and yet as time ruins them, they are not, strangely enough, married to each other.” Kind of hits you in the soul, doesn’t it?
As much as I wanted to love absolutely everything about this book, however, there was some things I just couldn’t get into and I think it boils down to this: I’m just no good with mysteries. The plot was twisted and dense and maybe I just didn’t pick up on the important hints that were dropped along the way, but I found myself struggling to understand how everything fit together. In the end, there is a powerful cabal of Jews working to establish the Jewish homeland in Israel being assisted by a secret fundamentalist Christian arm of the US government. Why are the Christians helping the Jews? Because apparently the Jews need to be in the holy land in order for Jesus to come again. It all just feels like such an incredibly long and unlikely con. Making sense of all of that and tying it into the murder mystery was more than I could process as I was reading, but it did tie up nicely in the end (that’s kind of a very bad inside joke for those that have read the book… it ties up nicely…. get it? Anyway….).
Onward to my next #BeatTheBacklist book. My ever growing list is here and I’m always looking for suggestions.