Introduction

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

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.

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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.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760

What drives Lillian throughout this novel is her love for her daughter Sophie. Although love does not take her to New York, it does force Lillian to endure the hardships that she encounters as she swallows her pride in asking for help from her friends in New York and later in her travels across the states. She is willing to do anything to reunite with her daughter. It was a dangerous endeavor for a woman traveling on her own in the 1920s, especially without money. Giving up her body, belongings, privacy, and security and finally giving up herself to the natural elements seems to be no match for Lillian’s love.

There is also the love that Reuben and his friend Yaakov shower on Lillian. It is a mature love, one often kept at a distance, especially in Yaakov’s case. They love Lillian both as a child and as a sensual woman. Yaakov’s love might be more pure than Reuben’s, who takes Lillian to bed. Yaakov remains aloof, never allowing his feelings for Lillian to break through the surface. But his love is deep, and he is willing to do almost anything to help her. Yaakov, though he has little money, uses his brain and network of acquaintances to help Lillian get to Seattle. He worries about her, believing that she has little chance of accomplishing her mission, but he is willing to do whatever he can to assist her. He places Lillian in circumstances where she will most likely be taken advantage of, but it is the only way to get her across the States with no money.

Arthus Gilpin also demonstrates a strange form of love for Lillian—he has her locked up in a women’s detention hall. He wants to marry her, but he knows she will not stand still for that. So he helps Lillian in a strange way, the best way he can. The man who truly loves Lillian is John Bishop, a man who sees Lillian at her worst, covered in sores and lice.

Another theme that is explored in this novel is that of desperation. Lillian is desperate when she places her daughter outside the bedroom window. From that point on, desperation stays deeply buried within Lillian, spurting out of her dreams and sometimes contaminating her life. She is desperate enough to travel to New York City with no more awaiting her than a cousin she does not know. She is desperate in her arrangement with the Bursteins, too: giving in to the men, who luckily turn out to be gentle and supportive, is an act of desperation. Lillian senses that her staying with her cousin Frieda will eventually end in a catastrophe. Lillian looks around herself and takes the best opportunity she can find.

Lillian’s desperation is inflamed when she learns that her daughter Sophie might still be alive. It is almost as if she asks, “What do I have to do next?” The answers are terrifying, but Lillian is, of course, desperate. She is willing to offer her body to strange men, to be stuffed into a dark closet for days, to live in the crime district of Seattle, and to walk and walk and pray. She is at her most desperate point when she meets John Bishop in a remote telegraph station in Alaska. It is at this point that she finds true love. The desperation has completely humbled her but it has also tempered her and given her the makings of a hero. John, who helps Lillian wash away at least one level of her desperation, sees the strength of the woman who lies underneath.

But Lillian’s desperation does not end there. She is still driven by it and must leave John's cozy cabin even though John himself is desperately lost, immobilized in a storm with two broken legs. Lillian is, at this point, torn between two opposing forms of desperation. She cannot find John in the blizzard, and she cannot sit around and wait for him to return. Her daughter is still tugging harder on her heart.

Lillian allows her desperation to take her to the edge of the Yukon River, where she tries to maneuver a small boat. She has no experience and no understanding of the moving water or the craft that disobeys her commands. But this does not matter. Lillian is not thinking with her brain. Her energy is fueled by her emotions: desperation and love. She pushes as hard as she can until she can go no further.

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Characters