Jonathan Safran Foer travels to Ukraine to find the woman who may or may not have saved his father from the Nazis in Trachimbrod—his family shtetl, or village. He hires as his personal translator Alexander Perchiv, a young Ukrainian man, to help him in this quest. Alex is accompanied by his grumpy grandfather, who is officially the driver for the trip, and his dog, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, whose temper is rather unpredictable.
Alex’s father asks him to help the American Jew in his search because doing so will enable the wayward young Ukrainian to earn some money. In addition, Alex is the only one in the family who can be of help because he has been studying English at the university. He speaks a peculiar form of broken English, and his narrative sounds as though it has been pieced together with the help of a thesaurus. Parts of his story represent the letters he sends to Jonathan in America.
At the same time, Jonathan’s letters to Alex narrate a quasi-magical history of his family in Trachimbrod. These tales are part of a novel that Jonathan plans to write. They begin with the story of the 1791 drowning of Trachim, Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Trachim’s daughter, Brod, is the only one to survive the accident, and the citizens of the shtetl must find a foster family to raise her. The choice is made in a lottery, and Yankel D, who has lost his own wife and children, becomes Brod’s foster father.
Armed with a picture of Augustine (the woman who may have saved his father), Jonathan begins his trip with Alex, Grandfather, and Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, by going to Lvov, where the group spends the first night. From there, they travel to Lutsk and the area where the shtetl is supposed to be. They ask random people on the way for directions, but nobody has heard of Trachimbrod or Sofiowka, the previous name of the village. In the end, they come across a woman who initially denies knowing anything about Trachimbrod. However, after she sees the picture of Augustine and the suspicious Alex has tortured her with his questioning, the woman eventually breaks into tears, admitting that she knows something about Trachimbrod. The woman invites them for lunch at her house, where they discover a multitude of boxes whose labels indicate that they are full of artifacts and memories from Trachimbrod.
Jonathan and Alex firmly believe that the woman is Augustine, the one they are looking for, although she persistently denies it. As she shows them pictures from the shtetl, it suddenly becomes clear that Alex’s grandfather has a connection with the past of Jonathan’s family. He appears to have been one of the few who fled Trachimbrod, managing to escape by betraying his best friend. Jonathan, Alex, and Grandfather ask the woman to take them to Trachimbrod. She insists that there is nothing left of the shtetl, but they are convinced only after they go there and see for themselves that the place where Trachnimbrod used to be is nothing but a...
(The entire section is 1222 words.)