Review by Sarah Katz
Steve Stern’s novella, The North of God (Melville House, 2008), centers on the sublime power of story to banish the horrors of the Holocaust. Through its two-part structure, the book communicates the intensity of the fictive dream: Part one introduces the early life of sixteen-year-old Talmudic prodigy Hershel Khevreman, while part two belatedly introduces the narrator of Khevreman’s tale as Velvl Spfarb—a former peer of Khevreman from his yeshiva days—who, many years later in a cattle car en route to extermination, has been recounting Khevreman’s tale to a young, famished woman and her ill child.
The belatedness of Spfarb’s arrival in the book proves crucial to Stern’s project. In the tale Spfarb tells, Khevreman moves away from his earlier intentions to become a scholar, transitioning from a prodigy due to marry a “not a very prepossessing young woman… with a body like an empty pillow slip and a pinched face the hue of a biscuit dipped in borscht” to a suddenly wayward nomad and lover of the succubus Salka, daughter of Lilith, due to an extended glance into a mirror. The book’s first part is thus a darkly funny, if a bit dramatic account of a growing boy, but in part two, it takes on a more speculative tone as Spfarb considers the significance of Khevreman’s tale in the context of his own dismal future. The book’s structure allows for a dynamic porousness between the two narratives, generating questions about both, the reliability of Khevreman—or the creativity of Spfarb, for that matter—and the pliability of so-called “reality.”
Stern’s brief book is also significant for its syntax, jam-packed as the sentences are with crucial details. Consider this description of Khevreman’s parents, which borders on the fantastical: “Raised on mealy potatoes by a lumpish mother, herself potato-shaped, and a father festooned in feathers like a flightless bird, Hershel had conceived, since coming to Stary Sacz, a fondness for creature comforts.” This portrait of Khevreman’s parents—his mother, potato-like, and his father, a bird—conveys a genetics of rootedness and flightiness, yet also acts as a significant plot point. In this single sentence, Stern implicitly reunites Khevreman—who, in the beginning, lives far from his “native Zshldz, beyond the reach of his dowdy family”—with his parents, suggesting the lack of Khevreman’s control over his own life (and therefore, story). Ultimately, “The North of God,” or where “His jurisdiction no longer held sway” concerns a sort of “middle ground” that Khevreman occupies between rootedness and flight; similarly, this story of loss ultimately acts as an in-between sanctuary for Spfarb and his listeners.
While Holocaust narratives continue to be written, this regrettably brief book invokes an intense landscape in which the reader is reminded of its doubleness. The overarching message: The journey of remembering and recounting may lead to terror for some, but it may displace it for others. Stern’s exhilarating and complex novella invites and offers multiple readings of life and death questions—a read that will certainly displace you, no matter where you may be.
Sarah Katz is Publications Assistant at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, where she reads submissions to The Writer’s Chronicle and The Writer’s Notebook. She has an MFA in poetry from American University, where she received the Myra Sklarew Award for her thesis. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, NANO Fiction, jmww, RHINO, The Rumpus, Temenos, and elsewhere.