Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Published: HarperCollins/Fourth Estate, 2007

Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF Awards

Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award, British Science Fiction Association Award

The Book:

For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. 

Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage, and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.”

I heard of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union through the recognition it gained in science fiction award circles. I was attracted by its striking cover art (I know, don’t judge a book by its cover…) and frustrated by my inability to find it in e-book format (I only ever found it in Spanish, oddly enough). I eventually got my very own physical copy of the book, and now I’ve finally read it!
My Thoughts:

One main speculative element in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was its alternate history setting, which seemed to be very well thought out.  The Jewish settlement at Sitka had distinctive social customs, culture, traditions, local quirks, and even slang (which was helpfully decoded in a glossary).  In short, Chabon’s Sitka felt like a real, physical place with a believable history.  (I should point out that Sitka is, in fact, a real place, though Chabon’s Sitka is fictional.) With all the descriptions of the buildings, various social groups, and even specific kinds of local food, I thought that the community of Sitka felt as complex and organic as any small community. I think I might have been even more appreciative of the construction of this imaginary settlement if I were more familiar with actual Jewish culture.  I was never exactly sure which aspects of their society were based on existing traditions, language and attitudes, and which were specific to fictional Sitka.   

The story itself seems like a pretty traditional detective tale.  For various reasons, Meyer Landsman pursues a murder that ends up to be both more and less than it appears.  Landsman is also a fairly ordinary detective character—he was once a respected cop, but now he suffers from some emotional trauma and substance abuse (alcoholism).  Even if it does fit the common detective story mold, though, I enjoyed how everything unfolded.  As the story progressed, each layer of the mysterious murder was slowly peeled back, and the story grew more and more complex.  However, at the end, everything collapsed back together in a satisfying way. 

In my opinion, the attention to characters and atmosphere of the story also set it apart from an ordinary murder mystery. Though most of the characters have serious emotional problems, I thought that they were very well-drawn. Landsman may have once been a great homicide detective, but his flaws are not romanticized.  His alcoholism is a serious detriment to his social life and career, and his partner, Berko Shemets, seems to be the only thing keeping him from professional (and possibly physical) suicide. Berko, Berko’s father, and Bina Gelbfish were also particularly interesting and complex characters.  The murder victim is also surprisingly well developed, through the information Landsman slowly uncovers about him.  By the end of the story, I felt like I knew him almost as well as those characters who were still living.

Though it was not without humor, much of the story seemed shaped by feelings of despair and powerlessness. From personal grief and guilt to the elimination of their way of life, Landsman and the other Sitka residents faced a lot of problems that they could do little about.  Landsman’s decision to pursue the murder case seemed like an attempt to reject the increasing pointlessness of his career and life. His boss was ready to classify the case as unsolvable without even trying, for no reason except that they’d been asked to wrap things up before Reversion.  The story isn’t all slow and melancholy—there are some very exciting scenes—but I felt like the novel never lost its undercurrent of sadness.  I know this might not be to everyone’s taste, but I can’t help but respect an author who can bring me near to tears simply by describing someone waking up.  Though it was, in some ways, a pretty depressing story, I felt like it ended with some hope for the future.

My Rating: 4/5

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union has few speculative elements, but those that exist are very well explored. I loved Chabon’s thorough depiction of Sitka as the fictional temporary Jewish homeland, and his extrapolation of what that society might be like. I enjoyed the slow reveal of the central murder case, but I also enjoyed the exploration of the characters of Landsman, the murder victim, and others.  The entire story has a very melancholy atmosphere, but the conclusion is not entirely devoid of hope.  I felt like I might have missed some subtleties due to my lack of familiarity with Jewish culture, but I still found this to be a rewarding reading experience.


  1. great review! I've been meaning to read this for a long time, maybe I'll actually get to it this summer. Have you read Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? that one was really good too, similarly engrossing and emotional.

  2. Thanks! This is the first I've read of Chabon's work, but Kavaiier and Clay is going on my list of books to read :).

  3. Maybe it's because I'm not a fan of the detective/murder-type stories, but I really did not enjoy The Yiddish Policeman's Union. The idea was interesting, but I felt like the whole book was an uncomfortable, pointless slog. As for Jewish cultural subtleties, there weren't any. A book of wasted potential, and one that I just don't understand the appeal of...

    1. Thanks for your comment! Well, it's good to know I wasn't actually missing anything, I suppose! I haven't read all that many detective/murder stories, but the plot did seem pretty standard for what I would expect from that genre, though much more slowly paced. Given the slow pace, I can definitely see it feeling like a pointless slog if you're not really interested in the central case.