This meandering delight of a book takes you from a tiny shtetl in the forest to the Far Country of demons, goblins, and the spirits of the dead. Bluma, the baker’s daughter, and Yehuda Leib, the town scapegoat and thief, both stumble into the Far Country after a near encounter with the Angel of Death. There, they must make pacts with demons, answer ancient riddles, and learn how to navigate the winding nature of the land in order to make it out alive — and, for the most part, intact.
As you can probably tell, it isn’t a fast or action-packed read. But there is a tremendous wealth of folklore and detail packed in these pages, a gradually spiraling rabbit hole that draws you steadily round and down.
The book wisely (and accurately) markets itself as a cross between Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, but Jewish. The most notable commonality between these two and The Way Back is that they do not shy from involving their young protagonists in terrible experiences. Bluma cuts her own reflection and name away in order to hide from Death; Yehuda Leib is partly responsible for the murder of a man right in front of his eyes. Their escapades in the Far Country range from being forced to push a demon in a wheelchair grown from their own fingernails to declaring war and taking command of the Army of the Dead. The children are allowed to make their own decisions, forced to bear the consequences of their actions, and — most importantly — never talked down to or dismissed for their lack of worldly experience. It’s never made sense to me that this is a quality so often lacking in children’s books and the younger end of the YA section, and one of the reasons why I love authors like Gaiman and Pullman — and, now, Gavriel Savit — is because they recognize that children have complex inner lives and are perfectly capable of understanding such heavy topics as identity, morality, and death.
While the children are going on a high-stakes Tolkien-esque quest through the Far Country, the Angel of Death is getting drunk and passing out in a grave. Actually, this whole adventure starts off because Death is so overworked and tired that they make a couple of crucial mistakes. They haven’t slept in millenia and they just want to have one night of fun at a wedding. Can you really blame them? (Yes, actually, because Bluma and Yehuda Leib end up sending the Far Country into chaos and nearly destroying the delicate balance of life and death and everything. Still, let this be a lesson to you to get enough rest and regularly partake in self-care so you don’t end up with a holy Rebbe accusing you of neglecting your duty, like the poor Angel of Death does.)
There are some aspects of the story that could have been better executed, mostly in the characterization realm: Bluma’s personality and her motives for running from Death are sketchy at best, the reason why Yehuda Leib is told to hide from a certain man is never fully explained, and the ensemble cast of demons is so large that, with everything else that’s going on, it’s unclear why some of them want the children for themselves. Ultimately, though, The Way Back is an engrossing journey into the rich Jewish folk tradition of pre-WWII Eastern Europe, perfect for a sleepless night in paired with a mug of tea.