Would you walk halfway around the world through untamed treacherous terrain and put yourself at the mercy of strangers, to find your child?
For Lillian, the lead character in Away, that was perhaps the easiest decision of her life. Her decisions — and the journeys on which they took her — are wonderfully and richly captured by author Amy Bloom, who chronicled Lillian's journey from Russia and back.
The rest of her existence she had known loss and sadness, want and pain. Lillian had scratched out a living with her family in Russia, married Osip and bore a child as was expected of her. That would have been her life — had her goyim neighbors not decided she and her family were evil. After a night filled with knives, broken china, axes and blood, she managed to send her daughter to the chicken coop to save her life.
It was the last time she would see Sophie alive.
In her mind-numbing grief, Lillian left her family farm and packed her meager belongings in a satchel. After weeks in steerage, listening to the tips of wiser and more worldly fellow passengers, she arrived on the busy streets of Lower Manhattan with only her talent as a seamstress and her cousin's address.
She does not stay in one place very long. At each step, she adapts, and she has willing and generous teachers along the way. Her cousin Frieda makes sure she realizes nothing in life is free, not even a spot as a night sleeper (and day seamstress) in the cramped apartment. Meyer takes her into his home and life, but to give him a veneer of respectability, and she learns companionship. From Reuben, she learns how to be a woman of refinement, to pronounce the Ws and to speak and understand English. Yaakov, whose life ended and began with the death of his wife and child, brought her the love of the thesaurus and a path to Siberia.
Even so, word of Sophie's life came from an unreliable source: an opportunistic cousin who wanted her life. Why would Lillian take the word of someone who told her the impossible while placing her hand on the small of her back and shoving her out the door?
But a mother who wishes for the impossible may not feel the pressure on her back. She may not listen to saner heads who wonder aloud whether Sophie would live best with a grief-stricken mother whose dreams are troubled and dangerous. Other minds might wonder if Sophie would remember this woman years afterward, whether Lillian's love is enough to tear her away from her new family, the only family she might remember. But other minds, saner minds are not Lillian's, and in the end they can only advise and assist. Through it all, she lost a lot and gained little, helped others and was helped, loved and was loved in return.
The story is rich in detail. From Bloom's descriptions, readers can visualize Meyer's love nest, Frieda's tiny and greasy apartment, the absolutely dark closet in which she crossed part of the American continent and the second broom closet in which she crossed the rest. Readers wince at her infected blisters, her tattoo, her lice.
The only disconnect I found in the story was when Bloom introduced us to two other characters in the story, giving them the same weight and importance as Lillian. At least one did not warrant that attention, and it felt a little gratuitious, as though Bloom did not want to waste the research or she wanted to make a point. It is minor.
However, this minor point does not take away from the beauty of the book. It's more than a travelogue. It's an epic story of survival that challenges us to wonder if we would risk it all and literally walk toward one life while walking away from another.