November 15, 2019

Books: A stranger on a journey

Sometimes I envision Lillian Leyb walking along Upper Broadway in New York, or trudging up subway stairs. She’s solid-looking and pretty, dressed in a mix of hand-me-downs and carrying a worn satchel, still young but with a hard life evident in her step.

In Amy Bloom’s novel “Away,” this unforgettable character makes her way from the Lower East Side to Seattle and then Alaska, hoping to get to Siberia to find her daughter. She had thought Sophie was killed in the Russian pogrom in which Lillian witnessed the murder of her parents and husband. But after arriving in America alone, she heard that Sophie was taken in by a family and then later exiled to Siberia.

With little in her pockets, knowing no one along the way, Lillian begins her journey. She shifts from someone who enjoys herring in cream sauce as a treat to a woman who kills, skins, cooks and eats porcupines that cross her path in the Northwest woods.

In an interview last week in a Manhattan hotel while in town for her book tour, Bloom explained that in fiction there are two basic dramatic plots: “I go on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town.” Here, she uses both.

“That was what interested me,” she said, “the idea that you always have the potential of being the hero, and you are also going to be the stranger.”

The author of “Come to Me” and “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” Bloom was also inspired by apocryphal stories she heard of about a woman named Lillian Alling, who walked from New York City to Alaska in 1927, hoping to make her way home to Siberia.

“I found myself wondering what would make you go, since I’m not myself a very physically adventurous person,” she said. “If you weren’t adventurous and you weren’t at war, what would make you go? Only love would make you take a trip like that.”

Many novels have been written of immigrant Jews in New York in the early years of the 20th century, tales of men and women who overcame hardship as they became Americans. Although “Away” begins on the Lower East Side, Bloom didn’t want to keep her story there as, she explained, “this is a big country. That’s not all of America.”

“Away” is original and compelling, with unexpected plot twists, an ensemble of unconventional characters, lyrical descriptions of the natural world and moments of real tenderness.

Lillian spends her first 35 days in America ripping stitches out of navy silk flowers until her hands are blue; she’s living with a relative and sharing a bed. Frequently, Lillian wakes up screaming, dreaming of the last bloody night she spent with her family.

Her English is limited, and she answers, “I attend night classes” to any question she doesn’t understand. After she boldly asserts herself to get the job as seamstress for a Yiddish theater company, she becomes the mistress of the theater’s matinee idol who, it turns out, prefers men, and also of his father, the grand impresario of Second Avenue. Through them she meets a new friend whose business card reads “Yaakov Shimmelman/Tailor, Actor, Playwright/Author of “The Eyes of Love”/ Pants pressed and altered.” Then a cousin arrives in America, who shares the news that Sophie is alive, and Lillian must leave even as she found inexplicable love and comfort. Yaakov provides maps and directions.

It’s not that Lillian is particularly adventurous or brave, but she’s driven, with a tremendous capacity for endurance and a dark sense of humor. When she was a girl, her father told her that she was lucky when she fell in the river twice and didn’t drown and didn’t die of pneumonia. And he told her that she was smart and pretty but “lucky was better than them both put together.” He also said, “You make your own luck.” And she does. Although most of her travel adventures hardly seem the stuff of luck, that she gets out alive and able to keep moving recalls her father’s words.

Lillian encounters train porters who let her stow away in a broom closet for a price, a prostitute named Gumdrop who takes her in when she is beaten up, Christian missionaries who pray for her good fortune as they try to reform her, women “in trouble but not really bad” who are her cellmates when she’s confined to a work camp and an isolated telegraph operator who shows her kindness, even as she is lice-covered and limping. At times she prays, she steals, she remembers and she keeps going, making sense of the vast foreign land around her. Several characters share their stories of love and loss, but Lillian is spare in revealing her own.

At times she walks 20 miles a day in Alaska.

“When she can, Lillian walks to a waltz. She walks to a mazurka for four miles, to a fox-trot for another four. She walks to as much ragtime as she can remember…. The spaces between the trees will fill in slowly until the woods around her are a spiked gray wall, and Lillian has learned to make herself sleep in the endless, disturbing dusk. She sings the sad, raspy lullabies her mother had sung to her and she’d sung to Sophie: children lost, lovers separated, crops failing — dirges, all of them, and oddly cheering,” Bloom writes.

As Lillian moves on, Bloom’s narrative occasionally pauses, filling the reader in on what will happen to the characters Lillian leaves behind. As Bloom explained, “My own sense of people with difficult lives it that you don’t get to keep around everyone you want to keep around.” She has created a narrator’s voice that is both a kind of classic 19th century voice and modern — “an old fashioned 21st century omniscient narrator,” she said.

“I don’t think of it as being set in the past. For those people it was not their past, but their present. I wanted to create their modern world.”