How many American novels could there be that mention Calgary? In John Dos Passos’ major 1925 work, Manhattan Transfer, it is a place to better oneself: “Well, how about making tracks for Calgary?” one character asks. “I know a fellow there who’ll give me a job I think.”
In Amy Bloom’s breakthrough novel, Away (Random House), Calgary is merely part of the mysterious west, where life breaks up into new possibilities for Lillian Leyb, Bloom’s unstoppable heroine. Lillian encapsulates pre-World War II Jewish life: a victim of a gruesome pogrom that sends her into an immigrant’s exile on New York’s Lower East Side, she remakes herself as the mistress of a Second Avenue Yiddish theatre impresario. But Lillian’s American success is transformed by the news that her daughter, saved but lost at the time of the pogrom, is in fact alive in Siberia.
It is at this point where Away’s light-hearted satire of 1920s Jewish New York transforms into a more challenging kind of book – a travelogue based on what Bloom has called the “bits and fragments of a story” about a woman named Lillian Alling, who is said to have come “up the Telegraph Road, determined to walk to Russia.” (The Vancouver Opera is presently developing a work based on Alling’s travels, minus the pogrom.)
Away is fast-paced and lightly funny, despite the dark side of its storyline. While Dos Passos’ documentary fiction aimed to capture how the tenement dwellers of New York talked, Bloom applies a scriptwriter’s ear to her effort to recover 1920s slang, both Yiddish and English. She has a knack for capturing voice, for placing characters amid the bustle of a New York street or among the aggressive clientele of a chop house.
The early sections of Away have a cinematic power that is memorable and unsettling, as the action moves from the squalor of a massacre in the Russian Empire to a quirkily upbeat portrait of immigrant struggle on the Lower East Side.
Lillian’s mode of travel in search of her daughter turns on a curious piece of nonsense: when she is unable to afford the cost of a steamship to Europe, a friend tells her that she should make her way overland, then up the Pacific West Coast, after which she can make the crossing on the Bering Strait to Siberia.
Like Mickey Mouse setting out for the moon with little more than a toothbrush, Lillian has her coat rigged with hidden pockets, she tucks away a few American dollars and maps cut from books in the New York Public Library. Her goal is so far-fetched that it can be portrayed in an almost slapstick way as she stows away in the bathrooms and broom closets of cross-country trains, winters in a women’s prison rather than brave the route north before spring, and sets out alone on the Yukon River in a “wide and deep and misshapen” boat, only to find herself ashore, her boat sunk, five miles from her departure point.
The light tone of Away, along with its brevity, set it apart from typical historically motivated fiction. It is not truly a novel about pogrom-ridden Russia, nor is it a detailed portrait of Essex and Rivington streets. Bloom’s main interest in Away is the idea of a woman like Lillian, whose movement, resourcefulness and quiet cunning remind us of a self-deprecating superhero, or a magician unaware of her own powers of escape.
The Canadian North is sheer myth in Bloom’s version, a place of beauty, easy death and crusty loners in flight from bad deeds done down south. Though Lillian’s travels reach as far north as Dawson City, Yukon, they end in Skagway on the Alaskan coast, and her years spent there are told in less than two pages. The ground beneath Lillian’s feet – whether European or American – is not where Bloom’s real interest lies. Rather, it is the act suggested by the novel’s title that provides her with creative inspiration. “Away,” Bloom has said, is “one of those words that has in it both coming and going. I go away, I come away; I leave here, to go away and must go away again, in order to come home.”
From such coming and going, Bloom creates a novel with the tone of a comic book romance, leavened by Yiddish jokes and the surprise offered up by the newly settled West.
Norman Ravvin’s fiction includes the novel, Lola by Night, and the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.