The Way Back by Gavriel Savit

The Way Back by Gavriel Savit. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 9781984894625

Format: Hardcover

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Genre:  Fantasy/horror/folklore

What did you like about the book? Two children from the tiny village of Tupik are on parallel journeys through a landscape of Russian myth and Jewish folklore. Yehuda Leib is fleeing the tsar’s army and seeking his father, whom he inadvertently slays while his father is an instrument of Death. Bluma’s journey is also one of flight, as she accidentally acquires Death’s soul-taking spoon and must flee from Lilith and her army of cats. Both are pursued by various demons in service of Death, including an army of the undead. They end up in the “Far Country” where they must each give up something important to achieve their freedom from Death’s minions. Meanwhile, a learned Rabbi engages in his own deathbed negotiation with death.

This is a completely engrossing fantastic journey with magic, mysticism, epic travel and intellectual puzzles that each child must navigate, separately at first, and then together. Savit’s writing is gorgeous, and is enriched by the evocations of Jewish folklore and religion. Readers will be treated to extensive meditations on death and dying, which are described in exquisite, achingly lovely prose: “Each of us crosses the threshold of the House of Death eventually, and each of us goes alone.” Readers who would like to imagine Yehuda Leib and Bluma as an eventual romantic pairing will have evidence to do so, but one could just as well consider them compatriots on the quest of a lifetime.

Anything you didn’t like about it? No

To whom would you recommend this book?  I’d hand this to sophisticated readers, tweens to teens, who enjoy rich folkloric/fantasy, especially those with an interest in Jewish mysticism.

Who should buy this book? Elementary and middle school and public libraries

Where would you shelve it ? Fiction

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Stephanie Tournas, Robbins Library, Arlington, MA

Date of review: June 20, 2021

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