There are events so horrendous that one can only deal with them by not dealing with them, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. In The North of God, Velvl is in a cattle car, wedged against a young woman, with her child suspended between them. We know, of course, where they’re going. And so, it would seem, does Velvl. In order to keep from thinking, he tells her the story of a boy from his long ago yeshiva days, who visited Sitra Achra, the ‘other side.’ But the tale is itself a frame, reminiscent of matryoshka, Russian dolls, nested within each other. At the center: life, death, dreams, masques, a (maybe) prophet… What is real? What is sin? Where is Hell? Is there Paradise?
Steve Stern’s little masterpiece calls up Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, even as it disappears. The images are extremely well chosen, and work on the book’s many levels— in the midst of reverie, the appearance of a Russian succubus, or a Yiddish expression, reminds us where (and when) we are. With a sure hand, Steve Stern entices the reader on a merry romp, but under it all is ultimate evil…and true to the fairy tale-like format, if not rescue, there is redemption.