Reading this book was much the same experience as my recent reading of The Painted Girls by Cathy Buchanan: a work of historical fiction that simply rose up and absorbed me and drew me into its world. The main character in Away, Lillian Leyb, is a Jewish immigrant to the US in the 1920s, fleeing her Russian homeland after a vicious attack by Gentile neighbours killed almost her entire family. Lillian is not always likeable but her sheer desire to survive makes her a compelling character and for the first section of the book it seems like this will be an immigrant narrative, the story of a woman’s desire to transcend a tragic past and either make it or be destroyed in early twentieth-century America. However, the story takes an unexpected turn when a cousin arrives from Russia with shocking news that sends Lillian on a quest to return to the very country she left. Lacking the money for another transatlantic crossing she chooses instead to cross America by train then head north into Canada and Alaska with hopes of crossing the Bering Strait to get to Siberia. It’s a crazy plan and Lillian’s adventures sometimes do veer into “incredible journey” territory, but the strength of her character and the many people she meets along the way, plus the vividly realized world of 1920s America, kept drawing me along.
This is a big story, epic in every sense of the world, with Lillian experiencing every imaginable aspect of life in that time and place, yet never fully able to move beyond the horrors of her past. It’s a personal as well as a geographic odyssey and Lillian emerges as a completely engaging heroine against the backdrop of her larger-than-life adventures. This was a couldn’t-put-down book for me.