“Only the smoke from the crematoria moves in the bright air, heavenward if there were a heaven.”
In his acclaimed 2007 debut novel Finn, Jon Clinch offers up an inspired imagining of "Pap Finn," Huck’s ne’er do well father. For his next book, 2010’s Kings of the Earth, he moves on from the Muddy Mississippi to another bygone era in the rustic upstate New York setting for a multifaceted family chronicle, in tribute to the fading voices and legends of his parent’s generation.
It’s not just literary wanderlust driving Clinch, however, as he lights out for new territories beyond American bounds--whether geographic or thematic—and a bleaker family dynamic to the harrowing heart of holocaustal darkness beating at the core of the engrossing and potent The Thief of Auschwitz (available Jan. 15). The unremitting and ineffable horrors signifying World War II concentration camp barbarism makes for a work that amounts to “a second memorial to that same generation, this time honoring those on my wife’s side of the family of man—the Jewish side—whose stories are likewise in danger of being lost,” Clinch says in the Notes and Acknowledgments.
Indeed, the “boot heels of time and history” tramp their bloody trail all over the novelistic dirge as an intertwining narrative chronicles a Polish family of four: Jacob Rosen, a barber; his wife Eidel, a talented artist; tall and robust Max, the 14-yr old son; and his younger sister Lydia, ethereal and beautiful. Together or separately, amidst rumor and uncertainty—one man's crematorium is another man's "clinic"--they are herded by Third Reich thugs onto a train bound for Auschwitz and a way station to finality with its “precarious balance of life and death, and love and hate, and good and evil. If it should permit a heart to rise, it will just as surely strike it down.”
And so the ever-expanding process of selection and elimination soon enough calls for an untimely death for the delicate Lydia, while Max is able to pass for an 18-year old man suitable for forced labor alongside Jacob, and Eidel is segregated in the women’s camp. Conditions of crowding, hunger, and deprivation, of course, are deplorable, but other downsides remain unthinkable as Clinch’s vivid sense of place doubles as a disorienting sense of displacement, even at the end of day: