Saturday, March 22, 2008

Away by Amy Bloom

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)


Jeane said...

Mapquest won't give you the option to walk. That made me laugh. Sounds like a great book, and I always love reading a bit on the history of my hometown! (Seattle). I'm definitely adding this one to my TBR.

Doreen Orion said...

Me, too! Thanks so much for reviewing it. It sounds like a wonderful reading group read, as well. I see it's coming out in paperback in June, so I think I'll recommend it to mine.

Anonymous said...

on my tbr list. i love amy bloom and have done for years -- her short stories are first rate, and it's nice to see she can also handle the longer form of a novel. in fact, is this her first novel, Becky?

Becky Holmes said...

Susan, I think she has written a few novels. I am going to read them soon. Glad to see you are back -- I will respond to your e-mail now!

gail jacob said...

I just finished this book and enjoyed it also. I'm a big fan of her short stories. The only thing that bothered me was her device of leaving the present to tell us the future of various characters. I found this annoying and made the narrative difficult to follow, especially toward the end of the book. Maybe I was just tired reading it before bed.

Becky Holmes said...

Gail, I had a similar reaction. I felt like those descriptions belonged in a different book, one with a less traditional narrative structure. While fun to read, they felt out of place. But they didn't bother me enough to take away from my enjoyment of the book.

Nice to see you on Blogger!

Anonymous said...

I actually liked the way she jumped out of narrative structure to tell about the characters Lillian was leaving behind. Although not all of the characters have happy endings, it helped me see the profound effects Lillian had on each of them. It made parts of the book feel more like short stories than chapters.

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