Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Away by Amy Bloom

Lillian Leyb is a newcomer in 1920s New York. She is young and pretty and barely speaks English, but she is no innocent; the survivor of pogroms that killed her entire family in Russia, Lillian is not about to let New York defeat her.

She outwits the other applicants for a seamstress job at the Goldfadn Yiddish Theatre. When the handsome lead actor of the theater seems attracted to her, she lets him know she might be available. When his father also expresses an interest, well, that too is negotiable.

But Lillian's cynical and practical stoicism is shattered when she hears a rumor: her baby daughter, Sophie, believed to have been murdered with the rest of her village in Russia, may still be alive somewhere in Siberia. That possibility changes everything. Soon Lillian leaves the safety of her Manhattan apartment and embarks upon an odyssey to find out the truth about Sophie's fate.

That quick summary doesn't do justice to the richness of Away by Amy Bloom. I loved the opening chapters, about the immigrant Jewish experience on the Lower East Side. Lillian's guess at how to get to Siberia from New York sends her on a heartbreaking voyage westward, to Chicago and Seattle and then to Alaska. Along the way she encounters the outcasts and down-and-outs of America in the 1920s: prostitutes, prospectors, grifters, homosexuals, and other vagabonds like herself.

A hearty Yiddish mix of tragedy and wit, Away is a suspenseful tale of a not-very-respectable heroine and her amazing quest.

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