Shadow Giller: Yiddish For Pirates by Gary Barwin


Gary Barwin’s imagination knocked my socks off. History and adventure come together in this remarkable tale full of word play and wit, all told by a 500-year-old Yiddish-speaking parrot.

So, you ask, how did this shell-less cheder-bocher – schoolboy – drawn from the waters of Ashkenaz find himself on the Spanish Main, the blade of his sword pressed against the quivering kishkas of Spanish captains? How did Columbus, the Inquisition, and the search for some books cause us to seek for life everlasting?

And, come to think of it, how did I, an African Grey, become his mishpocheh, his family, and he my perch, my shoulder in the world?

And so begins the tale of Moishe and Aaron, his parrot.

A bookmark without a book doesn’t know where it is. Moishe was my slim volume, my scrawny story. My shoulder.

Together they take on the Inquisition,

“Since the beginning, they have tried to kill us Jews, but ha-Shem – God – gives the story a little, what you would call, a drey, a twist, and then somehow, we aren’t destroyed. Until the next time.”

Christopher Columbus the pompous,

The ship’s master unfurled the flag of the Spanish Kingdoms and planted it in the sand. For we shall have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth and have a fancy brocaded flag to prove it.

and the Ocean Sea.

To be at sea is to know vastness, to understand the flight of clouds, the reach of the stars and of invention. He was riding the expanding ripples of God’s great cannonball. Moishe felt as if he were travelling in every direction at once, each direction away from home, toward story.

They seek “revenge and retribution from Spanish ships and their gold”,

Was I surprised my hopeful pink boychik Moishe had turned pirate? Feh.

God Hisself would have turned pirate if, on bumping into the New World, He had seen that the othershtupping Spanish had discovered only a larger canvas on which to paint their murderous scenes. The same hateful fire burned inside their poxy hearts as fueled Inquisition flames. They had persecuted Jews. Now they persecuted Los Indios.

and they search for the Fountain of Eternal Life.

“Ach, who needs immortal life?” I answered. “It’s but a larger sack to fill with misery.”

“But it works the other way, too,” Moishe said. “Trouble would scatter like ashes in the wind over a life-without-end. And anyway, it’s the Fountain of Youth, so you’re made young again. Younger than your memories, younger than your pain.”

“Eternal relief.”

“An everlasting finger to those who tried to erase us: here we are, a permanent stain on the pages of history.”

They suffer great sorrow but maintain hope for the future.

I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting. That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body. Sha. I’m only looking for this treasure, these books, this poxy fountain, because, like a shlemiel, I still believe – keneynehoreh – in life instead of death. But, takeh, it’d be easier to be dead.

And through it all, Aaron can’t help but crack his jokes.

I smiled sheepishly. If a parrot could be said to be sheepish. Or to smile.


This book comes with a warning: despite the jolly feel of the novel, there are some very graphic scenes of violence. You’re thinking it be the pirates. But, sadly, the worst of it comes from the “good guys”; the Catholics in Spain ridding the country of heretics, and the great explorers of the New World who think the Native Islanders are soul-less.

Yiddish For Pirates is not a quick read, but every word is enjoyable. I giggled and smirked, felt anger and awe, and at the end of it all I shed a tear. I was sad to see Aaron go.

In the Acknowledgements, Barwin says that he dedicates this book to his family: “I have tried to infuse it with wonder, thoughtfulness, wit, intelligence, culture, love and compassion. If I have succeeded in this in any way, it is because I have learned these things from them.”

He has succeeded.


With Yiddish For Pirates, Gary Barwin has earned every last ‘blurb’ about his book. Here are a couple that I especially like:

“All my life I have been waiting for the romantic tale of a Kabbalistic Jewish pirate as filtered through a uniquely Canadian perspective. Today, my prayers have been answered and then some.” Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure

“What an accomplishment! What an imagination! The wit, the wordplay, and the subversive humour make this a thoroughly original and delightful novel.” Lauren B. Davis, Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated author of Our Daily Bread and Against a Darkening Sky

For someone so accomplished, I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of him until his book made the Giller longlist. Happily, that has been rectified, and I hope the treasure that is Yiddish For Pirates will bring him much well-deserved recognition.


Yiddish for Pirates is also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

The review in the Globe & Mail claims that Yiddish For Pirates is “unlike anything else you’ll read this year”.

The review in The Star reveals some of what Barwin was thinking as he wrote his book.

“Pirates were these word-invention machines. These insults and swashbuckling threats are such a juicy joy to speak,” he says. “That’s a component of that in Yiddish as well. People who speak Yiddish love to revel in the Yiddishisms and clever charismatic ways of saying things. It’s so fun to riff off of those.”

Gary Barwin’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

*Thank you to Random House of Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review!


Shadow Giller: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

[Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime…                                                                                                       – Kate Harding, ‘Asking For It’

29220492This book is timely, insightful, and a page-turner. This is a book that will appeal to a wide audience, and will get people talking. And thinking: How would you react if someone you loved and trusted was charged with the worst of crimes? The Best Kind of People is an examination of rape culture; what it looks like and how it affects us, the victims as well as the accused.

No one saw it coming.

Everyone loves George. He’s a charming and generous family man; everyone’s favourite teacher at the school. He has a devoted wife and a loving son and daughter. So, when he is arrested for several counts of sexual assault and attempted rape, everyone is shocked. Everyone’s first reaction is denial. But, over time, the doubt begins to creep in. His daughter, Sadie, feels it first, along with guilt and shame. What if?

… if even a portion of the allegations against him were true, then what would her support mean? She was hit with a powerful surge of guilt. When your family needs you, you should be there.

“But his blood is in mine… What if he is guilty? What would that make me?”

Then again, what if he’s innocent? There is still irreparable damage done either way. Even if found innocent, it would be hard to go back to the way things were before. Never again would there be a sense of safety and peace of mind.

For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol. // The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.

Not knowing felt worse than knowing something for sure, even something terrible.

With the shifting of perspective between the three family members, (George’s wife Joan, their older son Andrew, and their 17-year-old daughter Sadie), Whittall manages to bring us three different standpoints. Sadie who has doubts from the beginning, Joan who is a full supporter and so desperate to have things back to the way they were, and Andrew who tries to remain neutral but feels the tremendous pressure. I was struck by how realistically she was able to have these three family members with their own, often differing, thoughts on the case still be able to come together and support each other despite their differences, rather than be torn apart. They did not always get along, they did not always agree, but there was always love.

“You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because someone accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.”

Nothing is that black and white. And Whittall takes this and runs with it. There is so much grey in this book that you will want to hash it all out; in your own head and with someone else. Aside from the question of George’s guilt and all the questions it holds for his family, the book addresses issues of victim blaming and rights for men. When you see the result of these young girls speaking up, it becomes very clear as to why so many of them just don’t. The public attention and ridicule doesn’t seem worth it.

“Your father is a symbol of all that feminism has done to cause hysteria on this world. Hysteria has become law! Feminists show specific signs of mental illness, and you can see, this is what happens when these women get too much power. Innocent men go to jail because girls aren’t taught anything about being decent and responsible human beings. They are taught they can do anything, and deserve special treatment, and men have to pay for it.”

What I liked best in this book was Joan’s point of view as the long-time wife of George and mother of two children who she had to keep herself held together for (most of the time). As you might expect, her feelings and thoughts were all over the place. And then she also had to take in and register everyone else’s feelings and thoughts on it all; her children, her friends, her co-workers, and her sister (who had strong opinions on the subject, and wasn’t afraid to tell Joan what she thought). She had to take all this in, hold it all together, while trying to sort out her own feelings and try to put some semblance of a life back together. How do you reconcile with the fact that all you’ve ever known and trusted in life is suddenly in doubt? She went through the whole gamut of emotions; guilt, shame, a sense of betrayal, loss of control, lack of trust (in anyone). I felt everyone’s pain, and I will not deny that there were tears.

“You’re feeling ashamed, but you shouldn’t. This is not your fault.” // “I am not ashamed,” Joan spat at her. The truth was that the shame Joan felt was so expansive and so forceful that it couldn’t be something described by as few as five letters, something so commonplace. This was something else entirely. “A word doesn’t even exist for what I’m feeling,” Joan mumbled.

“And that is the entirety of the life lesson I have learned from this experience. No one has control. At all.”

And, the ending. The ending will keep you awake at night. Is it satisfying? Is it revolting? Is it inconceivable? Is it what most of us would have done? What would I have done? I know what I would have liked myself to have done, but that’s not the same thing.  I didn’t know what to think. I confess to feeling a strange sense of relief that disgusted and confused me. However it is that you feel about it, you will all want to talk about it.

Heavy stuff, right? Except that the way Whittall writes doesn’t feel too heavy. It feels effortless and conversational. She even throws in some humour to lighten things up.

Are you serious? might be the dumbest thing people say, as a way to buy time to let very serious things sink in.

Andrew hadn’t thought about Stuart for years, and really only mentioned him when anyone asked him for his “coming out” story, which rarely happened anymore. Younger guys didn’t seem to have that ritual of exchanging stories of revelation, denial, acceptance, estrangement. These days they seemed to say, “What? I’ve always been gay. Here I am in day care in my Glad to be gay! onesie. What are you harping about, old guy?”

This book is written mostly from the point of view of the family of the accused, who are an upper-class white family. One thing I would like to have seen is more of a focus on the victims and their families. But that’s not the story the author chose to tell. She did touch on it, and it was an interesting twist to have the sister of Sadie’s best friend be one of the victims. In any case, there is still much to devour and ponder in this book; some things I haven’t even touched on in this review. I highly recommend it.

Best line: Outside, the leaves appeared to have reddened overnight, going mad alongside her.

Thank you to House of Anansi  for providing me with a copy of this book for review!


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor more information about Zoe Whittall and her other works, visit her website.

“Zoe Whittall might just be the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler…”
– The Globe and Mail

Review in The Globe & Mail: The Best Kind of People arrives at exactly the right moment

“I’m happy with how it turned out, but I feel, like every writer, you imagine how you could continue to write it forever.”

Review at the National Post: Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People delves into rape culture with a family broken by secrets

“Despite the plot’s real-world resonances, The Best Kind of People’s strength is in its commitment to the people themselves – tracking their shared and individual psychology over time, neither mindlessly sympathetic nor sadistic. Although invested in the politics at work, Whittall also observes and dissects filial loyalty, to profound effect.”