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Free Study Guide for The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

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Yakov Bok first became aware of the incident when he noticed people hurrying toward the scene. The following day, he read in the newspaper that the body of a murdered twelve-year-old boy had been discovered in a nearby cave. His name was Zhenia Golov.

The cave was one and a half versts from the brickyard where Yakov lived and worked. The boy’s body had many stab wounds. An anti-Semitic group, one of the Black Hundreds organizations, distributed pamphlets accusing the Jews of committing the murder for the purpose of getting the boy’s blood to use in preparing Passover matzos. This allegation worried Yakov. He lived, at that time, in an area forbidden to Jews like himself. There was a threat of a new pogrom. Yakov knew first-hand about pogroms. He had experienced a pogrom when he was a child.


This is not in chronological order. Time wise, this first bit goes near the end of Chapter II.

A verst is approximately equal to a kilometer, or approximately equal to two-thirds of a mile. It is a Russian measure of distance.



Five months before the terrible discovery of the boy’s body, as the time Yakov was to leave the shtetl approached, Yakov’s father-in-law, Shmuel, came to him to say good-bye. It was November. Shmuel’s daughter, Raisl, had been unfaithful to Yakov. Shmuel’s favors to Yakov were all the dowry he had been able to give to his son-in-law.

Yakov and Shmuel had tea together. Shmuel offered Yakov the sugar cube half that was in his pocket. Yakov declined the offer. Shmuel commented that he knew Yakov blamed him for his daughter. Yakov denied that he blamed Shmuel, but did not deny that he was unhappy with what she had done. He was also unhappy because she was barren. When Shmuel commented on his lack of charity, Yakov told him that he himself had never received charity. His life had been difficult since the day he was born.

Yakov’s mother had died within minutes of his birth. Then his father had been killed by anti-Semites when he was ten. He had been conscripted for the war between Russia and Japan, but it was over before he had reached any battlefield. The military had really not wanted him anyway. He had asthma. When he had returned to the shtetl, he had met Raisl. Shmuel reminded Yakov that Raisl had shared his misfortunes. The spin that Yakov put on it was that she had shared the misfortunes that she had caused. Yakov wished “black cholera” on Raisl and, in turn, an angry Shmuel wished the same on Yakov.

Yakov had not kept much as he had prepared to leave the shtetl. He took some books and the tools of his trade as a fixer. Shmuel, at the last moment, gave him some religious items that he would otherwise have left. He rode in a wagon pulled by a horse for which he had traded Raisl’s cow. The horse had belonged to Shmuel. It was old and did not like to be hurried.

Shmuel wanted Yakov to stay in the shtetl, but Yakov had plans. He wanted a better life.

The fixer had trouble getting the horse to move until a dog came along and barked. They stopped for a while and ate. Yakov managed to get the horse moving again. Soon they came upon an old woman. They gave her a ride. When she thanked Yakov by saying “May Jesus bless you,” he knew that she was a Christian and began to fear bad luck. A rock in the road caused a rear wheel on the wagon to break. The old woman trudged on without him and he pondered what to do,. He decided to try moving on three wheels. He succeeded for half a verst, but then, near the point the old woman had reached, the other rear wheel collapsed. Leaving the wagon, Yakov mounted the horse and passed the old woman, who was laying before a roadside crucifix.

Yakov road the horse through the dark countryside until he came to a river.


A "shtetl" is a Jewish village.

“Treyf” means “unkosher.”

In this chapter, the wheel on the wagon gave Yakov trouble. Also, on the last page of the book, a wheel on the carriage in which Yakov was riding wobbled.



At the river, the Dneiper, Yakov met a boatman. He took Yakov across the river and kept the horse in exchange. The boatman spoke against Jews. He spoke of what he foresaw being done to Jews in the future. Yakov dropped the prayer things that Shmuel had encouraged him to take into the river.


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