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'Away' Chronicles a Mother's Remarkable Odyssey

Sep 27, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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Amy Bloom's new novel, Away, tells the story of a young Russian immigrant named Lillian Leyb and a remarkable journey she takes across North America toward Siberia.

Lillian has survived the slaughter of her Russian Jewish family. Among the dead, she believes, is her daughter, Sophie.

Only after Lillian immigrates to New York does she get word, in 1925, that her daughter is still alive. The hope of being reunited with Sophie propels Lillian on her odyssey, during which she travels by train, steamship, mule train and foot to the edge of the continent.

Bloom says Lillian's survival isn't amazing: She is simply doing what is required.

"What is striking is she does not sit down and put her head between her knees and give over," Bloom tells Melissa Block. "She rises to the occasion, not gracefully, but she does well enough so that she can go on."

Bloom has crafted a richly detailed, historical novel. In her quest to find her daughter, for instance, Lillian encounters abandoned cabins on the Overland Telegraph Trail, in the Far North. In the book, Bloom describes the myriad objects the telegraph operators left behind:

their diaries, their Lemon Hart rum, their snowshoes, and their recipes ... their hand-carved jigsaw puzzles, their cloudberry jam, pine floors painted to look like Persian rugs.

Another skill Bloom brings to Away is her ability to listen to people, which Bloom says has always come naturally to her. A former waitress, Bloom has been trained as a psychotherapist and also teaches writing at Yale University. She has tuned her ear to appreciate certain nuances.

"You pick the things that speak to a couple of different qualities: loneliness and domesticity and creativity and boredom," the author says.

When Bloom began writing Away, she didn't have a clear ending in mind. But gradually, one did reveal itself to her.

Bloom says she took three months off entirely from working on the book, "to wander around my house, tearing my hair out." She would take breaks late at night and go to the baseball field near her house to smoke cigarettes and kick around some dirt.

"'Doomed, doomed, doomed,' is what would be going through my head," Bloom recalls.

In the end, Bloom was delighted when the book was finally complete, but her heroine is never far from her mind.

"I sometimes see Lillian or hear her. I find her a funny character, there was a certain dry humor about her that I sometimes see and hear," Bloom says.

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