Away: A Novel, by Amy Bloom, is a novel that is panoramic in its landscape and a saga covering two years in the life of Lillian Leyb. Lillian is a Russian immigrant, who has fled the pogroms. Her parents and husband were murdered, and as far as she knows, her precious, toddler daughter, Sophie, has been murdered also. She has emigrated to New York City to start a new life, and is very determined to assimilate and reinvent herself.
We witness Lillian go through many changes in her desire to weave her way through the tapestries of life in 1920s New York City. Some of the scenarious are a bit farcical and outrageous, often hard to believe they would actually occur. Survival is at the foremost in her mind. When she thinks that she has found a niche, a place of comfort where she has the essentials such as food, shelter and clothing, her life takes a turn due to some news she has found out.
“It had taken eight hours for Lillian to get from Ellis Island to the Battery Park of Manhattan and another four to find Cousin Frieda’s apartment building. She had read Cousin Frieda’s letter and the directions to Great Jones Street while she stood on three different lines in the Registry Room, while the doctor watched them all climb the stairs, looking for signs of lameness or bad hearts or feeble-mindedness. ”You step lively,” a man had said to her on the crossing. “They don’t want no idiots in America. Also,” and he showed Lillian a card with writing on it, “if you see something that looks like this, scratch your right ear.” Lillian tried to memorize the shape of the letters. “What does it say?” “What do you think? It says, Scratch your right ear. You do that, they think you can read English. My brother sent me this,” the man said and he put the card back in his pocket, like a man with money.”
Lillian’s cousin emigrates and informs her that Lillian’s daughter, Sophie, is still alive. This sparks an intense desire and passion in Lillian to try to trek to Siberia, in order to find her daughter. Lillian goes to the extremes in order to do so, trekking through expanses of land that are uninhabited, in order to make her way to try to find her daughter. Along the way she meets people of varying statuses and mores.
This does not deter Lillian, for she is determined to find Sophie no matter what she has to do. It might sound insane, unattainable, and sound like a journey without a happy ending, but as far as Lillian is concerned, it is one she must make, no matter the incredible cast of characters she meets on her journey, and no matter what she has to do. Lillian is more than courageous, and is a heroine in this excellent novel.
I will not go into any specific details of Lillian’s journey, as it would give away too much of the novel. From the underbelly of the ship that took her to Ellis Island, to the things that she had to endure and go through in order to survive (some of it not so nice), to the harsh reality of life in the Yukon, we travel with Lillian through an arduous journey, and one of great bravery and will power. I do recommend you read it in order to gain a better understanding of life in America, from NYC to the Yukon, during the 1920s.
Away is a novel depicting the plight of the Russian immigrant. It is a sweeping saga, and it is a novel of identity, of love and longing, and of yearning for those left behind. Away is a gripping and forceful story of time and place. Bloom depicts the social mores, and the ways and means in which immigrants assimilate in order to become part of the society and country they so strongly want to live in. Away has the protagonist reinventing herself to fit her environment, only to return to her true identity, with her coat and baggage.
Bloom has given us a descriptive and clear painting of love and longing, passion and strength, assimilation and identity. Her characters are flawed, but that is to be expected, as in reality, none of us are perfect. And, for those who can’t understand Lillian’s fierce will and brave determination, they have missed a vital part of the novel, and missed the emotions between the lines, in this fantastic tour de farce. They should try to to think about the content with a different perspective, that of a mother’s frantic journey to find her daughter.
Most of us would go to the ends of the earth to find our child, if we found ourselves in the same situation that Lillian was in, no matter how absurd or extreme it might seem. Bloom understands this, and writes with eloquence, and gives us an emotionally breathtaking novel, filled with bits of humor and filled with heart-wrenching moments within the vast expanse and panorama of America. Away: A Novel is written with brilliance, and it is an Amy Bloom masterpiece.
I personally own and have read this novel, twice.
July 15, 2012 – 25 Tamuz, 5772
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