University of Pittsburgh


The Mysteries of Home

Written by Cara J. Hayden

yiddishpoliceunionOn an Alaskan island, writer Michael Chabon meanders through a harbor town, observing the locals as they move in a landscape between the mountains and the sea. While he strolls past fur stores and diners, he wonders what the streets would be like if the United States had followed through with a 1940 plan to resettle thousands of Jewish WWII refugees to Alaska. How might his grandparents and others of their generation have made a home in this remote yet striking place?

Chabon (A&S ’84), winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is traveling along Alaska’s coast, searching for the perfect town in which to set his book. His idea for the novel germinated with a traveler’s handbook called Say It In Yiddish (Dover Publications), which made him wonder how the Yiddish language—a mix of Hebrew and German—changed with the movement of people in the Jewish Diaspora. Then he began thinking about where Jews have lived and where they might have lived had history been different.

As he walks around the town of Sitka, which sounds a little Yiddish, he envisions skyscrapers and men tromping to chess matches in galoshes and black hats. Yes, this will be the perfect setting for his next novel. Chabon, who has lived in dozens of U.S. locales, says that his own wanderings have led him to question the meaning of home and to build imaginary homes within his novels.

Back in his writing studio in Berkeley, Calif., he sits with piles of notes about Sitka and vague ideas about a murder-mystery plot. Nearly every day for a year, he works beside a pipe-and-book photograph of his grandfather to craft one sentence after another, until the sentences become a 600-page story. The manuscript—about a homicide detective living in a fictional Sitka that’s a Jewish metropolis—is sprawling and complicated, not the hard-boiled detective novel he had intended. So he starts again at page one. In the next draft, Chabon uses a third-person narrator, shortens his sentences to fit the detective genre, and streamlines the plot. Eventually, his words fuse into a 411-page story of love and the eternal search for home, becoming The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins Publishers), a best-selling novel.

This spring the author stopped in Pittsburgh on a national book tour. On a Friday evening, fans crowded into Joseph-Beth Booksellers on the South Side. Some of them were Pitt students eager to see the legendary alumnus. After all, his popular first novels, Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Morrow) and Wonder Boys (Villard Books), draw upon his experiences as a Pitt undergraduate. At the bookstore, Chabon began to read. For a time, he was home.