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The Book of Aron

The Book of Aron

4.8 4
by Jim Shepard

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The acclaimed National Book Award finalist—“one of the United States’ finest writers,” according to Joshua Ferris, “full of wit, humanity, and fearless curiosity”—now gives us a novel that will join the short list of classics about children caught up in the Holocaust.

Aron, the narrator, is an engaging if peculiar and


The acclaimed National Book Award finalist—“one of the United States’ finest writers,” according to Joshua Ferris, “full of wit, humanity, and fearless curiosity”—now gives us a novel that will join the short list of classics about children caught up in the Holocaust.

Aron, the narrator, is an engaging if peculiar and unhappy young boy whose family is driven by the German onslaught from the Polish countryside into Warsaw and slowly battered by deprivation, disease, and persecution. He and a handful of boys and girls risk their lives by scuttling around the ghetto to smuggle and trade contraband through the quarantine walls in hopes of keeping their fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters alive, hunted all the while by blackmailers and by Jewish, Polish, and German police, not to mention the Gestapo.

When his family is finally stripped away from him, Aron is rescued by Janusz Korczak, a doctor renowned throughout prewar Europe as an advocate of children’s rights who, once the Nazis swept in, was put in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. Treblinka awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape—as his mentor suspected he could—to spread word about the atrocities? 
Jim Shepard has masterfully made this child’s-eye view of the darkest history mesmerizing, sometimes comic despite all odds, truly heartbreaking, and even inspiring. Anyone who hears Aron’s voice will remember it forever.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the 2016 PEN New England Award

An ALA Notable Book of 2015

Winner of the Sophie Brody Medal for Excellence in Jewish Literature

Finalist for the Jewish Book Award

“Shepard’s harrowing, comic, and deeply human story of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto crushed me.  This book needs to be read.” —Anthony Doerr (Favorite Reads of 2015)

“A masterpiece. . . a remarkable novel destined to join the shelf of essential Holocaust literature. . . . a story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage. . . . Shepard has created something transcendent and timeless.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Shepard is a flat-out brilliant and deeply empathetic writer [who] puts the reader inside a known enclosure and yet makes us feel anew the bewilderment and horror of that time and place. . . . The Book of Aron is a worthy, necessary addition to the literature of the Holocaust.” —Rob Spillman, Guernica

“In the pantheon of living American writers, [Shepard] has provided a perfectly paced plot [and] by limiting his perspective to a young Polish boy [has] given the story an urgency and immediacy that made this reviewer read the entire book in only two sittings. . . . The Book of Aron is a tragedy of heroism, exquisitely written and devastating as it progresses. A valuable addition to Holocaust literature, Aron's story will likely linger long in any reader's memory.” —Greg Walkin, The Lincoln Journal Star

“This tender, slim novel is so distressing, so moving, so absorbing, so horrible and even so funny (in places and in the saddest ways) that I had to reading it during the daytime because when I read pages before bed, they’d keep me up half the night. Maybe it’s because my own sons are approaching Aron’s age, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt the anguish of the ghetto during the Second World War so acutely. (And the relationship between Aron and his mother is exquisitely built and exquisitely painful.)” —Anthony Doerr, The San Francisco Chronicle

“[Shepard’s] narrow perspective creates an uncanny tension and lets us feel the horror in a way that feels fresh and freshly devastating. . . . The Book of Aron doesn’t let you put it down, doesn’t let you stop reading until you get to the end [and] you’ve lived a lifetime with Aron—for better and for worse, you’ve done what he’s done and thought what he’s thinking.” —Tony Perez, Tin House

“It is the relationship between Aron and Korczak that sits at the heart of the novel [and] it is in the orbit of this entirely good man that Aron’s scarred heart begins to heal and expand. . . . Shepard is well known for his media res endings; there is some small mercy in the fact that he employs such an ending here.” —Geraldine Brooks, The New York Times Book Review

“Surrounded by filth, fear, disease, and danger, Aron—an unpromising child—finds his vocation and his voice. In straightforward and unsparing words, he tells his story, drawing the reader into the war as an inexplicable event that sweeps Aron and his gang of fellow smugglers into a daring mix of childhood bravado, ingenuity, and courage. . . . Shepard tells a heartbreaking and horrific story; he was also inspired by Aron’s story, and the story of all children stripped of their lives by uncontrollable forces they cannot understand.” —Maron L. Waxman, The Jewish Book Council

“A testament to Shepard’s storytelling powers [with] vitality, compassion and sardonic humour. . . . The Book of Aron carries the burden of its subject with a mordant frankness at once heartbreaking, refreshing and—hardest won of all—enchanting. Jim Shepard’s novel enters a crowded canon and it stands there, head and shoulders, with the best.” —Toby Lichtig, The Jewish Quarterly

“A work of art [and] moving masterpiece. . . . Shepard turns hell into a testament of love and sacrifice. . . . What better way to rebuke the Nazi piety that all Jewish life was utterly worthless than by bringing to full and empathetic life a perfect nobody of a kid, historically irrelevant as anything but a number, one of a countless horde?” —Joshua
Ferris, The Guardian [U.K.]

“One of America’s very finest writers [has] not only created something shocking, haunting and truly special, but captures the essence of humanity and its opposite, compassion as well as cruelty.  An unforgettable book.” —Billy O’Callaghan, The Irish Examiner

“Extraordinary. . . utterly shattering.  The Book of Aron is a masterpiece [about] the possibilities of love and heroism—and their limits.” —Antonia Senior, The Times [U.K.]

“A transcendent fictional experience [that] reminds us of the infinite varieties of good and evil, and of the many paradoxical places in between. . . . The book’s enormous power comes from its stylistic restraint [and its] dignity flows from its utter lack of pretension.” – Dan Cryer, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Remarkable. . . Shepard has distilled his meticulous research into a swift, savage narrative. . . So rigorous and adroit in its handling of its horrific subject matter, it makes you want to investigate everything else Shepard has written.” —Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

“A breathtaking, heartbreaking account not only of one child’s experience of terror and brutality, but a stark reminder of our own limitations and complicity.  It will rightly join the masterworks of Holocaust literature, but as with the best of those books the larger truth, the fundamental humanity, emerges from the narrow specificity of the individual to embrace the universal.” – Robert J. Wiersema, The National Post

“Shepard's novel joins a heartbreaking group including The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars and other child's-eye perspectives on the Holocaust.” —Time

“An immensely rewarding, shocking and beautiful book. . . . Shepard, who for years has been one of this country’s greatest fiction writers, is as original here as he has ever been. . . . Aron himself becomes an unforgettable character almost instantly.” —Michael Schaub, NPR

“Brilliant work. . . simultaneously the easiest book to read this summer and the most heartbreaking [with] characters you'll never forget. . . . We are propelled into the real grit, sweat, labor, and spark of humans caught in history’s circumstance.” —Steve Yates, The Jackson Clarion-Ledger

“Written in spare prose, with compassion, touches of dark humor, and a profound understanding of human complexity, The Book of Aron provides a powerful and poignant reminder of the start moral choices the Jews of Warsaw were forced to make.”—Glenn C. Altschuler, The Jerusalem Post

“Haunting. . . . [with] a matter-of-fact voice that can describe horrific evening with chilling precision.” —The New Yorker

"We’re in the hands of a master storyteller. . . . The Book of Aron suggests that literature still can be a serious business. Molding events from the Holocaust into a story form—well, that's the art.” —Aaron Howard, The Jewish Herald-Voice

“Remarkable, heartrending and hopeful.” —Debra M. Rosser-Hogben, LancasterOnline

“If Aron owns the rights to the book’s seductive narrative voice, it is Korczak who embodies its enveloping humanity. With affecting teamwork, a feckless boy with little conscience and an aging man with a surfeit of humility walk into the fire, lifting The Book of Aron into a realm with the finest Holocaust fiction.” —Jan Stuart, The Boston Globe

“Shepard succeeds because he never wavers from his novel’s moral focus. This is a book about annihilation, and the human spirit that somehow lives on, in slivers and cracks. This is the truth that Shepard siphons away from a history otherwise filled with the chill of encroaching brutality, the truth that renders a work of extraordinary fiction.” —Nicholas Miriello, Los Angeles Review of Books

“This magnificent tour de force will hold a prominent place in the literature of compassionate outrage. . . . Shepard, a writer of extraordinary historical vision, psychological acuity, and searing irony, presents a profoundly moving portrait of Korczak; explores, with awe, our instinct to adapt and survive; and through the evolving consciousness of his phenomenally commanding young narrator, exposes the catastrophic impact of war and genocide on children.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Remarkable, heartrending and hopeful.” —Debra M. Rosser-Hogben, LancasterOnline

“Shepard’s gift for drawing out the most elemental, human narratives against a backdrop of tremendous scale reaches its apex in The Book of Aron.” —Benjamin Rybeck, Kirkus Reviews

“The Book of Aron ennobles unimaginable suffering through the gift of art.” —Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf-Awareness

“Beautiful, harrowing. . .The words fall like thunderclaps.” —Marcia Menter, More magazine

“Shepard has created a stark masterpiece.  His brilliant, iconic book ranks with the best literature that explores the dark side of the human soul.” —Linda Diebel, The Toronto Star

“Understated and devastating. . . . an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival [in which] ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.”  —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Nothing less than a small masterpiece. . . . Anyone who gets spellbound by Jim Shepard’s incomparable prose might be tempted to concluded that the essentials have not been said until now, in this book. . . . The narrative is imbued with death-defying humor and unsentimental, with an almost defiant tone that feels both authentic and paradoxically comforting.” – Eva Johansson, Svenska Dagbladet

“Moving and powerful. . . . Shepard shows how, even in the worst circumstances, some people maintained their dignity and humanity. That message resonates even after the horrific ending.” —Rabbi Rachel Esserman, The Reporter (Jewish Federation of Greater Binghampton)

“The story of what happened to children in the Holocaust is not for the faint-hearted. A fictional, first-person narrative from the point of view of a Jewish child in Warsaw—in fact, a child in Dr. Janusz Korczak’s well-known orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto—is very brave. And a heartbreaking historical novel that ends in Treblinka may not be what many readers are expecting from a novelist and short-story writer whose ironic touch is often comedic. But Jim Shepard has written a Holocaust novel that stands with the most powerful writing on that terrible subject.” —John Irving

“Heartbreaking but never sentimental, comic but never unserious, terrifying but always engrossing, The Book of Aron brings us face to face with the unimaginable, actual truth.” —Daniel Handler

“Heart-breaking, shattering, charming and brilliant—there isn’t one word that isn’t the young boy’s. Jim Shepard has written some of the best books I’ve read and The Book of Aron is his best.” —Roddy Doyle

“The Book of Aron is a novel of profound and delicate simplicity—passivity, almost—but one which calmly and indelibly delivers the bluntest of impacts. In other words, it’s a knock-out (though you never saw it coming.)” —Jim Crace

“This moving novel bears witness to human complexity with an uncompromising compassion.  It is a testament not only to Janusz Korczak and the children in the Warsaw Ghetto but to every child abandoned in war.  History must open our hearts to the present and this is Jim Shepard's powerful achievement.” —Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces

School Library Journal
Shepard tells the story of the Nazi-era Warsaw ghetto through the life of a 13-year-old Jewish boy who fends for his family by joining other boys and girls smuggling needed food and other goods. At first, the adventure is entertaining, but Aron's family members are taken away or die until he is left alone homeless and starving on the street. The boy is rescued by Dr. Janusz Korczak—a real-life figure who was a well-known advocate for children's rights in Europe and worked tirelessly to save the denizens of his orphanage in the ghetto, although he could have departed. After being rescued by the doctor, Aron still suffers, but at least he is not alone. The teen faces a moral dilemma when he is tricked by a Jewish ghetto policeman into cooperating. His attempts to extricate himself should provide thoughtful questions for young and adult readers alike. What could the protagonist have done differently? The further reading list in the back matter includes works that will be especially helpful for teens wanting to know more about the historical details, such as Larry Stillman and Morris Goldner's A Match Made in Hell (Univ. of Wisconsin Pr., 2003) and Yehuda Nir's The Lost Childhood (Scholastic, 2002). VERDICT The writing is simple and effective. Because of the book's emotional impact, it should prove to be a valuable addition to those studying the Holocaust.—Karlan Sick, Library Consultant, New York City

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking. I broke medicine bottles by crashing them together and let the neighbors’ animals loose from pens. My mother said my father shouldn’t beat such a small boy, but my father said that one misfortune was never enough for me, and my uncle told her that my kind of craziness was like stealing from the rest of the family.

When I complained about it my mother reminded me I had only myself to blame, and that in our family the cure for a toothache was to slap the other side of your face. My older brother was always saying we all went without cradles for our backsides or pillows for our heads. Why didn’t he complain some more, my mother suggested. Maybe she could light the stove with his complaints.

My uncle was my mother’s brother and he was the one who started calling me Sh’maya because I did so many things that made him put his finger to his nose as a warning and say, “God has heard.” We shared a house with another family in Panevzys near the Lithuanian border. We lived in the front room with a four-paned window and a big stove with a tin sheet on top. Our father was always off looking for money. For a while he sold animal hides. Our mother wished he would do something else, but he always said the pope and the peasant each had their own work. She washed other people’s floors and when she left for the day our neighbors did whatever they wanted to us. They stole our food and threw our things into the street. Then she came home exhausted and had to fight with them about how they’d treated us, while I hid behind the rubbish pile in the courtyard. When my older brothers got home they’d be part of the shouting, too. Where’s Sh’maya? they’d ask when it was over. I’d still be behind the rubbish pile. When the wind was strong, grit got in my eyes.

Sh’maya only looks out for himself, my uncle always said, but I never wanted to be like that. I lectured myself on walks. I made lists of ways I could improve. Years went by like one unhappy day.

My mother tried to teach me the alphabet, unsuccessfully. She used a big paper chart attached to a board and pointed to a bird or a little man or a purse and then to the letter that went with them. A whole day was spent trying to get me to draw the semicircle and straight line of the letter alef. But I was like something that had been raised in the wild. I didn’t know the names of objects. Teachers talked to me and I stared back. Alef, beys, giml, daled, hey, vov, zayin. My last kheyder results before we moved reported my conduct was unsatisfactory, my religion unsatisfactory, my arithmetic unsatisfactory, and even my wood- and metal-shop work unsatisfactory. My father called it the most miserable report he’d ever seen, and invited us all to figure out how I had pulled it off. My mother said that I might’ve been getting better in some areas and he told her that if God gave me a second or a third life I’d still understand nothing. He said a person with strong character could correct his path and start again but a coward or weakling could not. I always wondered if others had such difficulty in learning. I always worried what would become of me if I couldn’t do anything at all. It was terrible to have to be the person I was.

I spent rainy days building dams in the street to divert the runoff. I found boards and pushed them along puddles with sticks. My mother dragged me out of the storms, saying when she found me that there I sat with my dreams full of fish and pancakes. She said while she bundled me into bed next to the stove that I’d never avoided an illness, from chicken pox to measles and scarlet fever to whooping cough, and that was why I’d spent my whole life ninety-nine percent dead.

At night I lay waiting for sleep like our neighbor’s dog waited for passing wagons. When she heard me still awake my mother would come to my bedside even as tired as she was. To help me sleep she said that if I squeezed my eyelids tight, lights and planets would float down past them, though I’d never be able to count them before they disappeared. She said that her grandfather told her that God moved those lights and planets with his little finger. I told her I was sorry for the way I was and she said that she wasn’t worried about school, only about how I was with my family and our neighbors. She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.


Yet when my younger brother was born, I told her I wanted him thrown into the chicken coop. I was glum that whole year, when I was four, because of an infected vaccination on my arm. My mother said I played alone even when other kids were about. Two years went by without my learning a thing. I didn’t know how to swim or ride a bicycle. I had no grandparents, no aunts, and no godparents. When I asked why, my father said it was because society’s parasites ate well while the worthy received only dirty water, and my mother said it was because of sickness. I attended kheyder until my father came back from one of his trips and told my mother that it was 1936 and time for me to get a modern education. I was happy to change, since our kheyder teacher always had food in his beard and caned us across the fingers for wrong answers and his house smelled like a kennel. So instead I went to public school, which was cleaner all around. My father was impressed that my new teacher dressed in the European style and that after he taught me to read I started teaching myself. Since I was bored and knew no one I took to books.

And in public school I met my first friend, whose name was Yudl. I liked him. Like me, he had no future. He was always running somewhere with his nose dripping. We made rafts to put in the river and practiced long-distance spitting. He called me Sh’maya too and I called him Pisher. When he wasn’t well-behaved he was clever enough to keep the teacher from catching on. One morning before anyone arrived we played tipcat so violently we broke some classroom windows. We scared the boys who had nice satchels and never went barefoot. He was always getting me into trouble at home, and one Sabbath I was beaten for taking apart the family scissors so I could have two little swords, for him and for me. His mother taught him only sad songs, including one about the king of Siberia, before she got sick because of her teeth and died. He came looking for me once she was dead but I hid from him. He told me the next day that two old men carried her out of the house on a board and then his father moved him away.


That summer a card arrived for my father from his cousin in Warsaw, telling him there was work in his factory. The factory made fabric out of cotton thread. My father hitched a ride to the city in a truck full of geese and then sent for us. He moved us to 21 Zamenhofa Street, Apartment no. 6—my mother had us each memorize the address so we could find it when we got lost—and my younger brother, who had a bad lung, spent his days at the back window looking out at the garbage bins. We both thought the best thing about the move was the tailor’s shop across the square. The tailor made uniforms for the army and in the front of his window there were three rows of hand-sized mannequins, each dressed in miniature uniforms. We especially loved the tiny service ribbons and medals.

Because it was summer I was expected to work at the factory, so far away that we had to ride the trolley. I was shut up in a little room with no windows and four older boys and set to finishing the fabrics. The bolts had to be scraped until they acquired a grain like you found on winter stockings. Each of them took hours and someone as small as me had to lean his chest onto the blade to scrape with enough force. On hot days sweat ran off me like rain off a roof. The other boys said things like, “What a fine young man from the country we now have in our midst; he’s clearly going to be a big wheel in town,” and I thought, am I only here so they can make fun of me? And I refused to go back.

My father said he would give me such a beating that it would hurt to raise my eyebrows, but while I sat there like a mouse under the broom my mother stopped him and said there was plenty I could do at home and school was beginning in a few weeks anyway. My father said I’d only been given a partial hiding and she told him that would do for now, and that night once they started snoring I crept to their beds and kissed her goodnight and pulled the blanket from his feet so that he’d maybe catch a chill.

Because I couldn’t sleep I helped her with the day’s first chores, and she told everyone she was lucky to have a son who didn’t mind rising so early. I worked hard and kept her company. I emptied her wash buckets and fetched hot compresses for my brother’s chest. She asked if this wasn’t much better than breaking bottles and getting into trouble, and I told her it was. I was still so small that I could squat and ride the bristle block of the long-handled brush she used to polish the floors.

When she told my father at least now their children were better behaved he told her that not one of us looked either well-fed or good-tempered. He joked at dinner that she cooked like a washerwoman. “Go to a restaurant,” she said in response. She later told me that when she was young she never complained, so her mother would always know who her best child was and keep her near. So I became myself only once the lights went out, and in the mornings went back to pretending things were okay.


At our new school we sat not at one filthy table but on real school benches. I wanted more books but had no money for them and when I tried to borrow them from my classmates they said no. I dealt with bullies by not fighting until the bell for class was about to be rung. When my mother complained to my teacher that a classmate had called me a dirty Jew, my teacher said, “Well he is, isn’t he?” and from then on she made me take weekly baths. I stayed at that school until another teacher twisted a girl’s ear until he tore it, and then my mother moved me back to a kheyder where they also taught Polish, two trolley stops away. But I still shrank from following instruction like a dog from a stick. My new teacher asked my mother what anyone could do with a kid who was so full of answers. He’s like a fox, this one, he said; he’s eight going on eighty. And when she reported the meeting to my father he gave me another hiding. That night she came to my bedside and sat and asked me to explain myself and at first I couldn’t answer, and then I finally told her that I had figured out that most people didn’t understand me and that those who did wouldn’t help.

My two older brothers got jobs outside of town driving goats to the slaughterhouse and were gone until after dark, and like my father they thought my mother should stay at home, so she confided in me about her plan to expand her laundry business. She said it was no gold mine but it could be a serious help, especially before Passover and Rosh Hashanah. She told me she used some of their hidden savings to buy soap and bleach and barrels and that every time my father passed the money’s hiding place she had a block of ice under her skull and could feel every hair on her head. I said why shouldn’t she take the money, and she was so happy she told me that once I turned nine she would make me a full partner. And this made me happy, because I knew that once I had enough money I would run away to Palestine or Africa.

The week before Passover we set giant pots of water to boil on the stove and we pushed all the bed linens and garments we’d collected from her customers into two barrels with metal rims and she lathered everything with a yellow block of soap before we rinsed it all and ran it through the wringer and dragged all that wet laundry in baskets up to the attic, where she’d strung ropes in every direction under the rafters. Since we opened the windows for the cross-breezes, she couldn’t rest that night and whispered to me about the gangs that specialized in crossing rooftops to steal laundry, so I slept up there so that she could relax.

“See? You don’t only care about yourself,” she whispered when she came to wake me the next morning. She put her lips to my forehead and her hand to my cheek. When she touched me like that, it was as if the person everyone hated had flown away. And while he was gone, I didn’t let her know that I was already awake.

Meet the Author

JIM SHEPARD is the author of six previous novels and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, Tin House, Granta, Zoetrope, Electric Literature, and Vice, and has often been selected for The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife and three children, and teaches at Williams College.

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The Book of Aron: A novel 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well told but very sad. Unbelieveable and indescribable what the Jewish people went through and how they suffered. Children were treated as unfairly as the adults. Shameful.
Pulledover 3 months ago
Good short read about the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII Upon finishing this book and thinking about how I would rate it, I was somewhat stumped. I did like the book but it left me a little unsettled on how the book ended. The book was recommended to me and not reading the description, I had no idea what the story was about other than about Jews during WWII. After realizing the timeline the book covered, I suppose the ending was fine. The setting is in 1942 Warsaw Ghetto where Jews are under Nazi occupation. Aron is the narrator who starts out around 8 and it ends when he is a teenager. Aron details his life while his family is still alive and how he scavenges for things. In the beginning it was to just help his family but as the story unfolds, his smuggling operations are for the survival of his family. As his life unfolds during this time period he ends up being rescued by the physcian Janusz Korczak who moved to the ghetto with the kids when the orphanage was sent to the ghetto. The book as many about this subject matter will have you definitely thinking about the atrocities and humanity in general. At the end of the book are some questions for thought in regards to the book. I think reading these questions first would have been helpful in thinking about the characters and dialog as they appear in the book. One of the issues that had me thinking a lot about was how a person's core beliefs can be broken down over time when living in extreme situations of hunger and fear of violence or death. The book is not terribly long and can be read fairly quickly. I would definitely recommend this book to a friend who finds this subject matter interesting.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Look who, as history pre-ordains futures, is nominated as comic in chief. Bobby
Anonymous More than 1 year ago