To & Fro

  • Review
By – May 20, 2024

Leah Hager Cohen’s new nov­el dances with lyri­cal play­ful­ness and emo­tion­al depth. It fol­lows the par­al­lel jour­neys of two young pro­tag­o­nists who both feel lone­ly in dif­fer­ent ways.

On the Fro side of the book, high­ly lit­er­ate Anna­mae is grow­ing up in present-day Man­hat­tan. She’s loved by her moth­er, her broth­er, and her nana, but none of them under­stands her ache to con­nect with oth­er peo­ple. A Friend. A Friend. A Friend. A Friend,” she blurts, frus­trat­ed. Mean­while, Anna­mae feels haunt­ed by the M. C. Esch­er print of one hand draw­ing anoth­er. She refus­es to com­plete a fic­tion assign­ment for her Eng­lish class, because she doesn’t think it’s right to cre­ate char­ac­ters whose thoughts and move­ments she can con­trol completely. 

On the To side is Ani, who can­not read at all but must find her own way to sur­vive in a harsh­er, more indif­fer­ent, pre-indus­tri­al real­i­ty after her moth­er dies in a cave. Annamae’s and Ani’s nar­ra­tives play out at oppo­site ends of the book; read­ers can flip it and read either sto­ry first. Some of the same objects — a tiny stop­pered glass bot­tle neck­lace with a mys­tery mes­sage inside, a pen­ny, and a leather-bound jour­nal — cross between sto­ries, though the two girls them­selves nev­er meet. 

Cohen’s short chap­ters are care­ful­ly craft­ed and move quick­ly. They intrigue us with one-word head­ings: Unknown,” For­get­ful­ness,” Knife,” Belong­ing,” Bees,” Fer­ry­man,” and Havru­ta.” Lyri­cal metaphors cap­ture our atten­tion. Here is Ani describ­ing the inescapable fury of her baby half-sister’s col­ic: Her cries were like the floss of milk­weed pods: they car­ried every­where, snagged on everything.” 

Although Ani’s nar­ra­tive is relat­ed in the first per­son, it is Annamae’s third-per­son sto­ry, with its deep inter­weav­ing of Juda­ic lore, that has more of an emo­tion­al tug. Rav Har­ri­ett, a friend of Annamae’s moth­er, invokes Jew­ish folk­lore, midrash, and sto­ries from the Tal­mud. These teach­ings give Anna­mae the space and per­spec­tive she needs to begin to inte­grate her imag­ined realm into the world­ly one. 

Cohen’s lat­est work of fic­tion does not pro­vide answers for either girl. What is cer­tain, how­ev­er, is that Judaism offers both of them lov­ing paths through the unknown.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er and a school librar­i­an for forty years in NYC, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

Discussion Questions