After witnessing the brutal murders of her family, 22-year-old Lillian Leyb flees her native Russia for New York City, hoping to stop carrying the ghosts of her mother, father, husband and young daughter around her like a shroud. She immediately gets a job working in the Yiddish theatre district with Reuben and Meyer Burstein, a father-and-son team, and finds herself as their mostly willing accomplice until her cousin shows up at her doorstep.
With Raisele’s arrival comes big news: her four-year-old daughter Sophie, believed to be murdered, may actually be alive — and living with a family in a Jewish sector of Siberia. And Lillian begins the cross-country journey that will find her in the arms and hearts of men and women from coast to coast as she makes her way to Seattle, Washington and up the Telegraph Trail of Alaska.
Amy Bloom’s Away is one emotional wallop of a novel. Filled to the brim with precise details, graphic imagery and plenty of grief to spread around, this is the story of a young woman’s journey to find her lost daughter, the final piece of the sad life she left behind in Russia — but it’s about so much more than that, too. In the back of my paperback version of the novel, Bloom discusses the idea that the novel is about Lillian becoming “American” in the 1920s — losing her accent, changing her dress, traveling west in the hope of finding freedom from her pain and the possibility of beginning a new life. This is, in fact, an American story — for all those reasons and more.
I was immediately drawn into life in 1920s New York City, and I felt like I was standing next to Lillian in line as she hoped to be chosen to work for the Bursteins. Her numbness, grief and general ambivalence toward life were a bit off-putting, but I’m sure that was intentional. Until Lillian gets the news from Raisele, she’s drifting through life — here, but not here. Her “adventure,” if you can call it that, brings her into the lives of some pretty memorable characters, and I especially loved John Bishop, the man standing sentinel on the Telegraph Trail, and Gumdrop, the classic “hooker with a heart of gold” in Seattle.
The sexual content in the story caught me a little off guard, but I guess it’s to be expected of a single woman roaming the country on her own — and in a time when women were still viewed as objects to be coveted and used. Also be warned of the graphic nature of many of Lillian’s recollections, particularly the aftermath of the pogroms in Turov. I am a squeamish reader, and I’ll say that they honestly didn’t bother me too much — so don’t be too alarmed.
Bloom’s writing style is incredibly unique, and there was plenty of foreshadowing happening through the whole novel. She does a superb job of tying up loose ends for characters who appear only fleetingly as Lillian moves on, and I felt an intense sense of closure. Even when the ends weren’t positive, it was nice to just know what happened to them. I really appreciated that!
The impetus propelling us forward in Away is the wonder, and the hope, that Lillian will find her little girl. But as in life, it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination — and I was happy to have joined Lillian on that quest.
4 out of 5!