Bloom’s ‘Away’ a journey in search of family, self
Aspen Times Weekly
Lillian must know in her bones that she is not going to find Sophie.
New York City’s Lower East Side was as much a haven as Jewish immigrants from Europe could expect to find in the early 20th century. Not exactly Eden, but a place where they could make a living, be among familiar company, and escape the intense persecution that had driven them across an ocean.
So what is it that drives Lillian Leyb, the young immigrant in Amy Bloom’s novel, “Away,” to leave her new home in Manhattan for places ” Seattle, Alaska ” that looked nearly as inhospitable as the Russia she had left? Arriving in New York alone, with nothing, she finds interesting work as a seamstress in a the Yiddish theater, and she gives herself to affairs with both the glamorous star of the theater and his prosperous father, the theater owner. It is a compromised version of the American dream, to be sure, but materially comfortable and reasonably secure. Many young women, Lillian knows, are doing worse.
To Lillian’s mind, the cause of her fleeing New York is the past she left behind in Russia. Bloom’s heartbreaking but thoroughly unsentimental novel flashes back to Lillian’s original flight, when Russian officers ransacked her home and brutalized her family. In the violence and chaos, she was separated from her toddler daughter Sophie. Whatever she might achieve in America, Lillian will never overcome the loss of her child, so when a cousin gives her hope that Sophie might be alive, Lillian is off and running.
But the cousin, Raisele, who passes along this information, is suspect to begin with; in the words of one of Lillian’s lovers, Raisele is a “hard little twist, eyes like a thief.” Even if the information is solid, the chances of Sophie being alive are slim, and the odds of Lillian finding her are even worse.
There is nothing more urgent, however, than the bond between mother and child, and Lillian sets off. Traveling ” again alone, again with nothing ” to the Pacific Northwest, where she plans to find a boat to take her across the Bering Strait, and from there to travel across Siberia ” Lillian encounters all forms of hostility. She sells her body in Seattle; she nearly starves and freezes in Alaska.
Lillian must know in her bones that she is not going to find Sophie. Maybe, deeper, what is pushing her is not Sophie, but a sense of connection, wholeness and family. When she finds it, it is not in a form she could have predicted. But in this satisfying, imaginative story, even a cobbled-together family will do.
As Bloom observes, “This must be where she was headed all along.”
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