Bloom’s fifth book explores the journey of a Russian refugee from the pograms of the 1920’s. Lillian Leyb finds herself away from anything familiar. She is homeless, penniless, and essentially friendless in the bustling streets of New York City during the height of the Yiddish Theater era. Luck places her in the beds of two powerful theater men, who support her financially, if not emotionally. Slowly, Bloom uncovers the scars of Lillian’s past life, in a manner that both speaks to the tenderness of these wounds and to the brutality that created them. Bloom’s depiction of this important period in the Jewish immigrant experience is alive with the sights, sounds, smells, and disorientation of New York’s Lower East Side.
A tip from a somewhat questionable relative starts Lillian on a journey that takes her away from the common experience of her immigrant kin. Determined to find her lost daughter, who may still be alive in Siberia, Lillian travels by train, by foot, by boat, by sheer will, west and northward across the United States, through the frozen territories of Canada, and into Alaska. Her trek is one of pain and of strength.
Much of the beauty in Bloom’s work comes from the character portrayals of the people who keep Lillian alive as she travels. Just as Lillian has been horrifically damaged by the events of her life, all those she meets have suffered as well. These characters emerge from the most diverse circumstances: a black prostitute and her brother the pimp; a tiny Chinese woman in prison for pick pocketing; a kindly widowed sheriff; a murderer who has left society to live alone in a cabin in the tundra.
In the end, it is love that takes center stage in Bloom’s dark, painful, and artful book. Love never completely obliterates Lillian’s suffering, but at times it shadows it. It is love that acts as a salve, if not healing scars, at least making them bearable. And it is this part of Lillian’s journey that the reader shares most intimately.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.