This tale, set in the early 1920s, chronicles the Jewish immigrant experience while also delivering up an exhilarating dose of drama in the form of a unique and adventurous road trip that traverses the United States all the way from New York to Chicago to Seattle and on to the frigid Alaskan wilderness.
Amy Bloom's Away follows the life of Lillian Leyb, a twenty-two-year-old who persistently reinvents herself even as she's faced with outwardly inexorable danger. Her story begins at Ellis Island, where it takes her only eight hours to get from the bustling immigrant gateway to Battery Park of Manhattan.
Eventually settling into a downtown Jewish enclave, a close-knit, gossipy community, Lillian shares a room with strangers at her cousin Frieda's.
It is here that Lillian is forced to endure the smells of men, urine and fried food, living in cramped and confined quarters where she is constantly sustained by uncertainty and need.
Lillian applies for a seamstress job with Mr. Reuben Bernstein, owner of the prestigious Goldfadn Theatre, considered to be the great Impresario of Second Avenue. Together with his son, Meyer, "the Matinee Idol," Rueben is instantly attracted to the pretty young Lillian, and she goes out of her way to flatter the
elder Bernstein with his big burnished voice.
Lillian is certainly no demure or diffident violet, and she's more than willing to smile at the new king and prince of her life. She's attracted to Meyer's swarthy movie star looks and to his beautiful home that looks like a stage set for a romantic comedy. Things, however, soon get complicated when the encounter with this father and son becomes a contest with Lillian as the prize.
Rueben is without a doubt moved by Lillian's innocent beauty. She, in turn, is awed by his imposing presence,
imagining herself doing whatever he wishes her to do. Meanwhile, Meyer seems to lose interest, becoming far more concerned with cruising the paths late at night, the desire for men rising in him like a "fountain of champagne."
Lillian has endured much in her life: her flight from the murder of her family, the loss of her daughter, Sophie, an ocean crossing that was like a death march.
She's constantly haunted by nightmares of the bloody scenes back in Russia, of the Jewish purges in which her husband was murdered and where she narrowly escaped death.
When Lillian's cousin Raisele tells her that Sophie may be alive and that her neighbors from Turov took her and saved her, the news proves to be a source of both solace and conflict. Determined to make the trip no matter if Meyer helps her or not, Lillian turns to Yaakov, her only true friend, who tells her to head cross country to Alaska and on toward the Bering Strait.
Here the plot takes an audacious turn as Lillian is forced to endure all sorts of hardships as she traverses the continent of the United States, meeting all kinds of eccentric characters and buoyed along by her determination to make her way in a harsh world. Even when the edges and corners of her memory begin to fade, her indomitable spirit keeps her going.
The novel's themes are of luck and hunger and greed, where fear is a motivator and the belief in the power of will drives one with potent force. Lillian seems to see her life as one big wheel rolling smoothly from the past to the present and on to the future, "from her life as a woman onto the next life" as she travels through the terrible darkness of her memories.
While the subplot involving the horrors of Lillian's past gradually unfolds, the author steeps her novel in period atmosphere with rich details of early twentieth-century American life. Bloom also proves to be a wise and intelligent observer of the human condition, recording the instant choices that Lillian is forced to make and the spur-of-the-moment decisions that inexorably alter her future.