Friday, June 13, 2008

Lillian's Odyssey

Amy Bloom's novel Away reminds me of the Odyssey. When the story opens in 1924 her main character Lillian Leyb has recently arrived in New York from Odessa, where her entire family was murdered in a pogrom. The early chapters tell the familiar story of a plucky young woman who uses her looks and her wits to improve her circumstances. She starts out as a seamstress in a successful Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side, but soon becomes the mistress to both the father who owns the operation and the son who is the handsome leading man. But the story, which is starting to sound like Sister Carrie, takes a sudden turn. Lillian begins an amazing journey that takes her across the United States and into the wilds of Alaska. Her harebrained plan is to travel across the Bering Strait and return to her native Russia. With maps sewn into pockets of her jacket and a will of iron she begins a journey that rivals Odysseus's struggle to reach Ithaca. Along the way, just as Odysseus encounters the Cyclops, Circe and the Sirens, Lillian endures many hardships and meets a host of unusual characters. She travels across the United States in the broom closet of a train with the help of some none too kindly porters. In the slums of Seattle she is rescued by an enterprising black prostitute named Gumdrop and becomes her unlikely lady's maid. As Lillian trudges through the forests of the Yukon Bloom gives us beautiful descriptions of the stark beauty of the remote landscape.

Bloom's descriptions of the kind and not-so-kind strangers Lillian meets on her journey are beautifully done. Even minor characters seem vividly real. Strangely, Lillian herself sometimes seems less accessible than the other characters. Her strength and her love for her daughter are obvious, but I often felt distanced from her emotional core. Maybe Bloom meant to represent the way Lillian was forced to shut down her emotions as a result of the horrible deaths of her family. Nonetheless, I admired and enjoyed this beautifully written story of Lillian's amazing odyssey and the power of her love.

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