The protagonist of Amy Bloom’s second novel, Away, is Lillian Leyb who, when the story opens, has heard the voices of the murderers of her parents and her husband. She knows she and her daughter are next. So she places her young daughter outside the bedroom window and tells her to go hide in the chicken shed. After the murderers leave and Lillian is amazed that she remains untouched, she runs out to find her daughter. But she cannot. Her daughter is gone.
Lillian is Jewish and lives in Russia, which has become intolerant of Jews. The year is 1924. Shortly after burying her family, Lillian is sent to a relative in New York City. Here, Lillian learns to fight for what she needs and lands a job as a seamstress with a small theatre group. Both the heartthrob of the acting company and his father, a married man who owns the theatre, fall in love with Lillian. She acts as mistress to both. She is not in love with either of them nor is she a woman without character. Rather, she is a woman with a lot of needs. The two men satisfy those needs on many different levels.
When a cousin from Russia arrives with news that Lillian’s daughter is very much alive, Lillian leaves the comforts she has won in New York and travels to Seattle. She is on her way to Siberia, where a family is said to be taking care of her daughter. No one thinks Lillian will ever make it to Seattle or Alaska, let alone Siberia. This does not change Lillian’s mind. She is determined to find her daughter.
Condensing Bloom’s story to a plotline diminishes the depth of the telling. Bloom’s storytelling skills invite readers in and then sweep them into a current from which it is hard to escape. Bloom is masterful in creating a cinematic scope using a minimum of words. Her characters, from the old tailor in New York who falls in love with Lillian to the prostitute who takes Lillian in when thieves steal all that Lillian owns, are both real and easy to identify with, even though they come from exotic environments. But it is Lillian, a young woman who refuses to give up, that readers’ hearts latch onto.