The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Book Review

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon

I like detective stories. I like alternative histories and I love the Yiddish language - it is so rich and descriptive. So I should have really enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I did enjoy it but not as much as I thought I would.

To me, the alternative history wasn't developed enough. The idea is based on a plan made by FDR where he invited Jews to settle on the Alaskan panhandle as a refuge from World War II. They settled in Sitka, "Alyeska" and their 60 year invitation is about to run out and they will have to go somewhere else.

There are some historical references and modern terrorist mentions but I wish this aspect of the book had been fleshed out more. It comes across as almost an afterthought instead of the basis for the novel.

As a detective story it is only so-so. The hero is Meyer Landsman, a Jewish cop on the Sitka force. Chabon has obviously read a lot of Raymond Chandler and makes Landsman a Jewish Philip Marlow. He talks tough, drinks hard and discovers a murder victim in a fleabag hotel.

What makes the book worthy of reading (or listening to in a great production by Peter Riegert) is the Yiddish. The more-than-frequent inclusion of Yiddish terms and customs makes the book special.

If some of the lines had been said in straight English, you would yawn and read on. But when you read them sprinkled with some rich Yiddish seasoning, it makes a big difference.

Chabon also uses his writing talent to paint the scene and craft some amazing metaphors. I can see this tome being used in creative writing classes as examples of descriptive prose.

I'm going to check out Philip Roth's The Plot Against America which is based on a similar alternative history.

I think Chabon tried to do too much - all 3 things - in The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It's still worth a read but, in this reader's opinion, didn't do enough for the "Frozen Chosen" in Alyeska.

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