By – December 7, 2020

In Gavriel Savit’s mag­i­cal real­ist nov­el The Way Back, two young Jews, Yehu­da Leib and Bluma, strug­gle to return from the thresh­old of death, and to under­stand the mean­ing of los­ing loved ones who will not suc­ceed in this escape. Set in a shtetl and pop­u­lat­ed by every vil­lage type — from the wise rab­bi to the sin­is­ter col­lab­o­ra­tor who kid­naps Jews for the Tsar’s army — the nov­el envelops read­ers in a thick tapes­try of the Ashke­naz­ic past. While it is beyond dis­pute that each of us cross­es the thresh­old of the House of Death, and each of us goes alone,” Sav­it offers a mov­ing­ly detailed por­tray­al of this lone­ly jour­ney through the sto­ry of two char­ac­ters who attempt to out­wit the Angel of Death.

In a com­mu­ni­ty where social rela­tion­ships and roles are usu­al­ly sta­ble, even rigid, chance encoun­ters and nar­row escapes lead to Bluma and Yehu­da Leib’s even­tu­al com­pan­ion­ship. Both char­ac­ters are des­per­ate to retain their par­ent fig­ures — in Yehu­da Leib’s case, a father he has nev­er known, and in Bluma’s, the arche­typ­al bub­bie who has trained” her over a life­time of Fri­day nights to know the smell of her soup.” When cir­cum­stances bring the two togeth­er, they try to elude the dark forces deter­mined to take their loved ones away for­ev­er. Each encounter with a demon or an emis­sary of death is dra­mat­i­cal­ly drawn, estab­lish­ing how real these crea­tures are in the cir­cum­scribed world of the shtetl, and how only pre­cise­ly defined prac­tices can pro­vide pro­tec­tion from their pow­er. While some read­ers might already know that, accord­ing to the Tal­mud, there are eleven thou­sand demons for each human being, they might not be famil­iar with the for­mu­las that Sav­it describes for escap­ing them.

At times, the evoca­tive back­ground can almost over­whelm the char­ac­ters as ful­ly devel­oped indi­vid­u­als. Metaphors chase one anoth­er in rapid suc­ces­sion, some­times too obvi­ous­ly embed­ding prover­bial sources of wis­dom: What do you think will become of you if you strike down Death? …What becomes of the sheep that is sep­a­rat­ed from the herd? What becomes of the can­dle left to the wind?” The Hasidim and their rebbe are some­what roman­ti­cized fig­ures, pure sym­bols of tra­di­tion vul­ner­a­ble to evil. Yet read­ers may decide that Savit’s sto­ry is intend­ed less as a mod­ern nar­ra­tive of char­ac­ter and more as an explo­ration of a van­ished past — one where folk­lore is not an object of study, but an immer­sive envi­ron­ment. There are cer­tain­ly moments when Yehu­da Leib’s need to res­ur­rect his miss­ing father is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly sub­tle, and his friend­ship with Bluma has a poignant dimen­sion. The chil­dren become more than just sym­bols of mutu­al loss, but, in a poet­ic and tan­gi­ble image, two red stitch­es looped togeth­er in the end­less scarf of living.”

In this high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book, Sav­it exper­i­ments with bound­aries, incor­po­rat­ing lit­er­ary allu­sions and even invent­ed mag­i­cal texts. He chal­lenges his char­ac­ters to defy the phys­i­cal laws that con­trol the uni­verse, as well as the deeply held beliefs that define their par­al­lel Jew­ish world. Read­ers will­ing to par­tic­i­pate in Bluma and Yehu­da Leib’s coura­geous chal­lenge will be reward­ed for their efforts. They will even learn that salt, cold met­al, and red thread can dri­ve away any demons they encounter.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

When the Angel of Death vis­its the tiny shtetl of Tupik, where noth­ing of note ever hap­pens, two chil­dren are drawn into a world of demons and mag­ic — part dream and part night­mare, yet inex­tri­ca­bly tied to the life of human­i­ty. Here they must nav­i­gate the rev­e­la­tion of fam­i­ly secrets and the dan­gers of the Far Coun­try” of the spir­its in order to make their way home. Sav­it’s voice recalls the best of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture, por­tray­ing a Jew­ish world in which dai­ly life is dragged down by the mud and slush of small-town pover­ty, yet tint­ed by the con­stant pres­ence of the super­nat­ur­al. Read­ers less famil­iar with Jew­ish folk­lore will be enchant­ed with the humor and goth­ic imagery, while those able to peel back the lay­ers of inspi­ra­tion will dis­cov­er a true depth of his­to­ry behind the book’s motifs. With its bal­ance of dark humor and often star­tling moments of warmth and ten­der­ness, The Way Back feels like an instant clas­sic, the kind of sto­ry one could read over and over again and still find new twists and turns.