Lillian Leyb, the fantastically resourceful heroine of Amy Bloom’s lustrous saga Away, is 22 when she lands on Ellis Island in 1924, just one Jewish immigrant among thousands desperate to escape Russian pogroms. She’s already seen too much — the murder of her parents and her husband, the loss of her 3-year-old daughter, Sophie. But still she keeps her eyes open. Az me muz, ken men is her Yiddish motto — ”When one must, one can.”
By the end of this memorable, panoramic novel, Bloom transforms the musts in Lillian’s life into a Scheherazade-like procession of cans that encapsulate all the cultural richness that newcomers contributed to this nation of immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. Plenty of great memoirs and novels have, of course, already brought the ghetto enclaves of greenhorn life in New York City into vivid life. But Bloom, the author of the award-winning story collections Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, sends Lillian out again on an odyssey of self-reinvention into an even bigger melting-pot America.
Not long after Lillian finally finds her place in Manhattan (and becomes the mistress of a couple of father-and-son biggies in Yiddish theater), word arrives that Sophie might still be alive. So the hopeful mother heads west toward Siberia to search for her child by train, foot, and boat — through Chicago, Seattle’s African-American jazz district, and Alaska. Bloom evokes passing characters so generously, in her witty language of compassion for the mess of human sex and violence, that we’re sad to part company with any of them. The black prostitute who calls herself Gumdrop, the Chinese grifter known as Chinky, and the Alaskan loner John Bishop represent whole exotically different New World experiences; they’re also fully formed individuals who affect Lillian’s fate.
Bloom’s training as a psychotherapist emerges in the sharp insights she ascribes to her heroine. An example: ”Everyone has two memories. The one you can tell and the one that is stuck to the underside of that, the dark, tarry smear of what happened.” Yet Bloom the writer is also content to confound the wisdom of Bloom the analyst. ”People who tell you the truth right away are people who aren’t afraid of you,” she writes, ”and that’s either good news, because they’re too stupid to be afraid, or very bad news, because they know that the only person who needs to be afraid is you.” Then, like the best of artists, Bloom defies her own warning: She tells the truth freely, and with a warmth that melts all fears. A