Here is a link to an old interview with Amy Bloom where she talks about mothering. Mothering is a central theme in Away, where Lillian Leyb undertakes the most perilous journey imaginable in search of her daughter.
In Turov, Russia, in the early 1920’s, Lillian Leyb believes that she is the only survivor of a pogrom that has killed her whole family, including her daughter Sophie. Beside herself with grief, certain that she has no future in Russia, Lillian makes her way to New York City where she finds physical (but not emotional) solace working as a seamstress at a theater, and later as the mistress of an actor. She is soon joined in New York by a cousin who has heard that Lillian’s daughter was not killed, but was taken to Siberia by another family who escaped from the pogrom (and who believed that Lillian had perished along with the rest of her family).
But how to find Sophie? And find her, Lillian must. Compelled beyond all reason, and guided by her friend Yaakov, the Yiddish playwright and tailor who has lost his own family, Lillian devises a plan to go to Siberia via the northwestern United States, traveling first to Seattle, then on through Canada and across the Bering Strait.
The story of Lillian’s journey makes up the lion’s share of this novel. Bloom’s research is meticulous, and she perfectly evokes the dangerous streets of boomtown Seattle and Lillian’s amazing trip through British Columbia and up the Yukon via the Telegraph Trail.
I loved this whole book. It works on so many levels, as the emotional story of a mother who endures unimaginable pain yet is still capable of hope, as the quintessential immigrant story about the endless possibilities of new life in a new land, and as a picaresque novel of adventure with Lillian as a plucky anti-heroine who lives for a while with a Seattle prostitute known as Gumdrop, and who can kill, skin and roast a porcupine in the deep snows of the Yukon when her food runs out.
If ever a book needed a map it was this one. On the endpaper there is a small sepia-toned one that is about 4 inches tall, but it has hardly any detail. I tried to follow Lillian’s journey via Mapquest, but that was a waste of time. While Lillian went most of the way overland through Canada, Mapquest insisted on sending me north via some ferry that obviously didn’t exist in the 1920’s. It didn’t offer me an “I want to walk” option.
I also tried to research the Telegraph Trail, but even Wikipedia didn’t have much. This article is about an earlier iteration of the project which attempted to lay a telegraph line from San Francisco to Moscow, staffed by men in relay stations along a trail that ran up the west coast of Canada and Alaska. The trail Lillian follows I think is that of the Yukon Telegraph, a less ambitious and ultimately more successful project.
(Book 10, 2008)