The Lost Shtetl
By: Max Gross
My Rating: Three out of Five Stars
Best for: 16 and up
Now THIS how to teach history…
I picked up The Lost Shtetl because the blurb sold me on a fascinating idea: What if an entire town had been lost to history? What would happen when it was rediscovered? I checked Goodreads for reviews, got an idea of the pros and cons, and decided to give it a try. Did the gamble pay off?
For me, The Lost Shtetl was a particular glimpse into a culture I’m not familiar with and a perspective on history I find fascinating, implemented in a unique way that was really cool to experience. Those elements really made this book shine, and I loved that about it. But while the execution was shining, the actual story and it’s characters were not–they were more like a dim flashlight on a dark night. Which was a bummer, because this cool little story was this close to awesome.
The thing that really got my book-nerd flag flying was the really cool way Max Gross wrote this debut novel as if it were a true story and not a work of fiction. I could believe there was a village of 2000 Jews in the woods of Poland that history forgot. They missed WWI AND WWII. They missed the Holocaust. They missed the Cold War. They missed the establishment of Israel. They missed cars. Indoor plumbing. Electricity. TV. The Internet. Inflation. And they were happy in their ignorance and isolation! You can imagine the results when their rediscovery captivates the nation. How about when they first learn of Hitler and that they were miraculously spared the terrors of genecide? It’s all there, and it’s equal parts silly, sober, and so easy to believe!
I particularly enjoyed the snapshot into Jewish culture. This was new for me, and I loved it. There are great Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew words like “meshuggenah” and “tzitzit” (complete with footnote definitions), Jewish marriage arrangements, descriptions of food and kosher rules, traditional clothing, family dynamics, and on and on.
The book is well written, too. Hard to believe it’s a debut! The Lost Shtetl was both funny and informative, but still had plenty of moments of serious too. It felt like a cross between Mel Brooks, Fiddler on the Roof, and Schindler’s List!
I mentioned that stuff about a dim flashlight on a dark night…the story itself was a bit chaotic. When the book begins, there is one comfortable storyline. But as the main characters begin their own journeys, the story fractures. Eventually it felt like there were two distinct plots that were only slightly connected. Yet the story would jump from scene to scene as if the two storylines were advancing the same plot. I assumed the intention was to tell both stories and tie everything up nicely at the end, but that ending never happened. Instead, the two interesting stories dragged.
The characters were interesting, but didn’t grow. I kept waiting for any of them to have a hero moment, but nothing came. They stayed flat–some even digressed and became less likable!
And the ending…if only The Lost Shtetl had stuck the landing all else could have been forgiven. But I’m a sucker for tidy bows, and there was a bit of an unresolved knot at the end. Sadly, the payoff I was hoping for never came.
Bottom line, The Lost Shtetl was a mixed back of awesome and just the wrong side of amazing. I’m glad I read it, and I hope you’ll read it too. My hope is that by sharing the things I found, you’ll be able to go into it eyes wide open with realistic expectations–then hopefully you’ll love it! Because the things that were good were very, very good. This book deserves to be read!
There is some non-descriptive sexual content involving prostitutes, a handful of F-bombs (7, to be exact), fairly graphic descriptions of mass death in WWII Concentration Camps, and one scene of strong violence. 16 and up feels right for this one.