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Where's Sitka? 

Like many reviewers, I loved the imagination in Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon is a great writer, with active plots, vivid characters, and big themes. But I kept wondering about the book’s relationship to place.

If you haven’t read it, here’s some background on the book’s premise: It takes place in an alternative-reality Sitka, Alaska, which is peopled by over two million Jews. They poured in after the U.S. in 1941 opened a district to accept European Jews fleeing the Nazis, and more arrived after the Israeli state “failed” before 1950. But the district’s authorization is about to run out, and their status is up in the air.

Chabon’s Sitka is, necessarily, a messy urban place. Its inhabitants have brought numerous European traditions. Although they occasionally interact with the native Tlingit, they have of course built their own society there. This is one of the themes that Chabon is exploring, the ways that the Jewish culture expresses itself in a variety of places, despite uprooting and persecution.

Yet there’s an alternative literary thread that examines the role of place -- especially the incredible geography of the American West -- in shaping the communities that form there. Sixty years after Europeans arrived in Butte, or Seattle, or Santa Fe, or Gillette, those places looked far different than any European community. The degree of variance-from-birth-society was greater in the West than it was in other regions (say, the Midwest, or New England), because of the West’s spectacular, aggressive surroundings.

Living in the West, I feel like the landscape has changed me and my community. From that perspective, I see it changing all sorts of other communities. And I have to wonder if it would have changed the Jews of Sitka, too. Maybe it wouldn’t have (and I believe that’s Chabon’s point). But it does seem to me that tension would have been a driving factor in the history of alternative-Sitka, and I would love to read a novel that described it.

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