Friday, February 22, 2008

Numbed Out

by Amy Bloom

Several of the things that I said in my last post, about Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals, also apply to this story, although the stories themselves are vastly different. This book deals with tragedy and injustice on a global scale, while focusing in on one person's struggle as a pathway to help us understand the horror of Jewish pogroms in 1920s Russia. As in Kyle's book, there is heartache and grief aplenty, but also solace from unexpected sources and grace when we least expect it.

Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, who immigrates to the United States from Russia when the rest of her immediate family is slaughtered in a pogrom. Lillian settles briefly in New York City, where she has distant relatives. Soon after she finds work and begins to learn English, Lillian finds out from a newly arrived cousin that her small daughter, Sophie, may have survived after all. The child is rumored to be living in Siberia with a family who took her in. The rest of the story deals with Lillian's arduous attempt to get to Siberia to reunite with her child.

As a mother, I can identify with Lillian's determination and desperation to find her daughter. Curiously, though, the story is written with a certain detachment that makes it difficult to relate to Lillian. The atrocities of the pogrom are related in flashback, in a matter-of-fact, journalistic style. At various points on her journey, as Lillian tries to get money to continue, she resorts to prostitution. While the reader can understand her taking this step, we still have this sense that the story is being narrated from someone very far away. At one level, this disappointed me about the book. I wanted to be let inside Lillian's head and understand what she was feeling.

It began to dawn on me as I read through the story, though, that this detachment is possibly an integral part of the character. Perhaps Lillian had to numb out just to survive what she went through. If she allowed herself to fully feel her grief she may not have been able to function and do what she needed to do. If this is the point that Amy Bloom is trying to convey, then she has done a remarkable job. I think I would have to read more of her work to see if this spare style is just her style or if it is specifically a part of Lillian's story and character.

Perhaps because the story seems so devoid of feeling, the rare points when Lillian's stoicism cracks are especially moving, as are the moments when these broken characters minister to one another in tender and unexpected ways. The scene of John Bishop bathing Lillian's infected feet and combing the lice out of her hair after she has walked untold hundreds of miles is worth the whole book. Talk about meeting people where they are and loving them as they are. Paradoxically numbly powerful.

Reverent Reader


At 2/22/08, 10:50 PM , Blogger LeAnn said...

I have not read the book, but the footwashing scene... sounds like that could preach!

At 2/23/08, 4:43 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

It would definitely preach.

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