Cover Image: The Way Back

The Way Back

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Member Reviews

Gavriel Savit's "The Way Back" is an enthralling blend of history and folklore. Set during World War II, the novel follows a young Jewish girl's quest to find her lost brother. Savit's exquisite prose and attention to detail create a vivid and immersive experience. The characters are compelling, particularly the protagonist. While the pacing occasionally slows, the atmospheric writing and thought-provoking themes make it a must-read for fans of historical fiction and magical realism. "The Way Back" lingers in the mind, leaving a haunting and powerful impression.

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A fantastic mystical Jewish novel reminiscent of Neil Gaiman and Aden Polydoros. This novel is the perfect spooky read with a fantastic lore.

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A brilliantly imagined and moving story of two young people whose escape from the bleakness of shtetl lives leads them to the cemetery between their towns and the realm of the king of death which lies below. Their path back to life and hope leads them to each other.

The most unusual aspect of this supernatural tale is that every part of it, every reference, comes from Jewish traditions and folk sources rather than the well-trodden Christian ones of witches, devils, vampires and ghosts. In his fresh interpretation of shtetl life and the lines between life and death, Savit imbues The Way Back and all its characters, from the children in the town to the petty demons of the underworld, even the soft-hearted Angel of Death, with Jewish sensibilities and believable emotions that give this book something that's been missing from ghost stories for far too long: the power to surprise and delight us.

Savit's book has one more element of surprise: although it's set in shtetl life and the past, some of the elements of the underworld are distinctly futuristic. It's as if The Phantom Tollbooth met The Hanukkah Goblins and grew up to shake hands with Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade, with a nod to Fahrenheit 451. A perfect combination for YA and older middle-grade readers, enjoyable for adults, and a great pick for youth group discussions.

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I recognize that there were some very creative things happening in this story, and I appreciate the representation of the historical time period and Jewish culture. That being said, I don't see many, if any, of my students engaging with this book long enough to get much out of the story. I read to the end, but I considered stopping several times as it felt like the story was dragging and I wasn't sure where things were headed. I appreciated the ending and am glad that I finished, but I don't think many teens will make it that far. There's a lot of literary merit, but the readability was a bit lacking and ultimately, if people don't read it, they won't have the opportunity to appreciate the literary merit.

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I have elected not to read and review this book due to time constraints. Thank you for the opportunity.

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BOOK REPORT for The Way Back by Gavriel Savit

Cover Story: Once Upon a Time
BFF Charm: Meh x 2
Swoonworthy Scale: 0
Talky Talk: Folklore
Bonus Factor: Jewish Fantasy
Relationship Status: On Different Paths

Cover Story: Once Upon a Time

I love the fairy tale-like quality of the illustration paired with an eye for detail (Yehuda Leib's scarf! The cat Sisters of Lileen in the trees!). And thanks to the contrast between the wintry white and dark blue surrounding the warm, golden center, the book looks inviting and intriguing, just like any good story.

The Deal

Yehuda Leib has earned a bit of a reputation in Tupik, the tiny Jewish village in 1800s eastern Europe where he lives with his single mother. He's a troublemaker, the kind of kid whose smarts adults mistake for corruption. In many ways, he's the opposite of Bluma, the dutiful daughter of the town baker, who always follows the rules. That is, until the night the Angel of Death comes for her bubbe, and everything changes.

Through a series of events that I won't spoil for you, Yehuda Lieb and Bluma end up on quests--separate yet related--through the Far Country, a supernatural realm teeming with demons like the beguiling Lilith and her feline Sisters of Lileen and the greedy Lord Mammon, whose Treasure House holds countless artifacts, from the strange to the mundane. Both Bluma and Yehuda Lieb are desperate to accomplish seemingly impossible goals, and their mutal determination binds them together on a journey electric with magic and simmering in danger.

BFF Charm: Meh x 2

Yehuda Leib and Bluma both seem like strong, intelligent kids with an admirable sense of daring, but they never felt like real people to me, probably due to the way they're written. More on that below, but basically, they came across like characters in a fairy tale rather than living, breathing, humans. They do have flaws--both are age-appropriately impulsive--but in a way that makes them feel like lessons in a fable rather than complicated, messy people. Because of that, I had trouble connecting with them and understanding their motivation, which is a shame, because these two go through hell (like, kinda literally) to try to get what they need.

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

While there's certainly a hint that, in the future, Yehuda Lieb and Bluma might be more than friends, there's zero romance in this book. I wasn't sure of the ages of the two protagonists, but they read a bit young to me, so I honestly wasn't expecting any K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Plus, they're kinda busy with the whole Angel of Death thing, which is certainly a mood killer.

Talky Talk: Folklore

Gavriel Savit weaves a tale rich with imagination, with words that feel like they were written centuries ago. This style yields plenty of Grimm-like "old country" enchantment rooted in darkness, and I savored the creepiness of the Gallows Grove (a forest where dead people hang from the trees) and the haunting images of the Army of the Dead. With that said, things stay pretty PG, unfortunately, and I would personally classify this as a middle grade read rather than YA.

Bonus Factor: Jewish Fantasy

In an interview, Savit says that, "The Way Back was conceived, in part, as a way to share the magic deeply ingrained in my culture with fantasy readers who might never have encountered it." And this aspect was definitely my favorite part of the book. There were customs I'd never heard of, like pouring out the water in the house after someone dies, because the Angel of Death washes his knife before he leaves. And there were echoes of superstitions I've seen in other stories, like keeping demons away with salt, cold metal, or red thread. The customs and organization of Judaism as a way of life gave the novel a fullness, so that even the non-mystical elements enhanced the world within its pages.

Relationship Status: On Different Paths

Listen, book, you're clearly popular. You're a National Book Award Finalist, for goodness sake, so I think I can safely say, "It's not you, it's me." While I did legit enjoy your unique and colorful mythology (Lord Dantalion is, like, the coolest shit I've seen in a while), I just didn't click with your voice, which felt aimed at someone far younger than me. So I'll bid you a respectful adieu at this fork in the road, and I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding a more suitable traveling companion.

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While I had a hard time getting connected with this story, and truth be told, almost stopped reading, it turned out to be an intriguing journey that I'm not sad to have taken.

While I felt that the two main characters weren't quite as well developed (esp in their motivations and goals), they did finally resonate enough with me that I wanted to see what happened. We have two young people who get tangled up with Death and end up on a (somewhat difficult to follow) journey to confront Death (and their own mortality, naturally). Overall, a good read with some interesting moments that introduced me to a little more of the Jewish mystical tradition and stories.

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I was a bit confused there for a while and would catch myself drifting off because it didn't keep my attention but after sticking with it the second half was way better and flew by!!

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I received a complimentary copy of this ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I was a bit confused for a lot of this book. I got the overall picture, but there were a lot of details I didn't understand, probably because this was base on Jewish folklore? To me, it felt like the characters actually did not accomplish anything and ended up back where they began. Maybe I am missing something?

I do like reading folklore of various kinds and so, even though I was confused, it intrigued me and I think I shall have to do some research so that maybe this book will make more sense to me. I did like the take on Death.

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I was unbelievably excited for this book because my culture is rarely shown on the page and because I am a big middle grade fan. Bring on middle grade stories of all sorts, from all cultures! But this is the second Gavriel Savit book that has left me lukewarm. Honestly, about halfway through this book I began skimming. The weird scenes did not bring enough levity to the plot to lessen the overall feeling reading this book brought me. Perhaps this is because I read it in 2020 with the world being what it is - maybe I needed lighter stories? But I know the history and stories Savit drew on to tell this story, and so I was waiting for an acknowledgement that people did not feel they were suffering 100% of the time: they lived their lives.

The Way Back is a reflection of the substantial side of Jewish storytelling that is much darker than Western culture's. American stories for kids do not tend to be as dark as they are elsewhere, and Jewish storytelling reflects a very dark history full of horrors, again and again. Fully acknowledging darkness in humanity is the flip side of the opposite emotion: joy. Judaism also includes songs like "Dayenu" ("It would have been enough!") and holidays like Purim. Balance and compassion are tenets.

Gavriel Savit should not bear responsibility for bringing the entirety of Jewish history and culture to the page. But I fear that the lauding of this one book by the Powers that Be in Publishing will be taken as The One Reflection of Jewish culture. Publishing needs a reckoning about diversity that is real and not just for P.R. purposes.

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I received an e-arc of this from NetGalley for an honest review.

Before this, I’d never read or even knew of any Jewish Folklore, so my curiosity was piqued. I also love stories with demons, especially ones from other cultures and backgrounds I’d never known before. I was a bit scared of not truly understanding the story since I was so unfamiliar with Jewish folklore, but I didn’t need to worry. I appreciate how well the author went into detail and explained the world we were brought to and the each of the different cultural aspects. This was refreshing to me in just how new it was to me. I also love a little darkness and a little twist. So I really appreciated that dark twists in this story.

It took me a little to really get into the story because of the pacing at first, but once I’d really settled into it, I truly and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was such a thrilling read.

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I didn't realize how much I was missing Jewish representation and mythology in fantasy literature until I actually came across it. A delightful read with important life lessons, though the characterization, especially for Bluma, seemed a little lacking.

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(actual rating: 2.5/5)

I spent most of my time while reading this, especially in the beginning, confused as to what was going on while trying to keep track of where each of the characters was, which wasn't fun, but thankfully, things somewhat improved as the book went on.

'The Way Back' tells a tale based on Jewish folklore and rooted in magic about two kids, Yehuda Leib and Bluma, who have their lives turned upside down after a visit from Death. They make their way to the Far Country, a land of the unliving, rife with demons. They must figure out a way to bring back what was taken from them, and return something that they took, all while doing their best not to lose themselves in the process.

For the most part of the first half of this book, I found my attention wandering and unable to really get invested or even interested in the story. This might have been because I was not knowledgeable in some aspects of the mythology and general magic system that was used in the book, leaving me reading on Wikipedia more than I was reading this book. And while I might have enjoyed it more if I had known more going in, I don't think I would have appreciated how much the book improves in the second half. For me, while the first half was hazy and difficult to understand at times, the second half was far more vivid and immersing.

The biggest reason was the writing, and how it seemed to grow better over the course of the book itself. It could be repetitive at times, but for the most part, it was entrancing, detailed, a bit hard to follow at times, and honestly made me feel like I was floating in a dream. A dream where I was simultaneously aware of everything and nothing, but a dream nonetheless.

The characters themselves were interesting in their own right. The way that they grow as the book went on, the way that their stories entangle and come apart was incredible. Death, how it is personified, and how it snakes its way through nearly every plotline in this book was quite fascinating to me.

All in all, while I was fairly confused for most of this book, it was certainly an intriguing read. I'd recommend it for others who like these kinds of books or the writing style, or are interested in a folklore-filled book that toes the line between middle-grade and YA.

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I struggled with this one; I appreciated the story, characters and settings, but just had a hard time getting into the writing style. I'll plan to go back and re-read (different mindset might have a different outcome), but this one just wasn't for me.

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Interesting premise. I read Anna and the Swallow Man when that came out and this feels very similar in tone/writing style. I would give this to fans of Marcus Zusak and Patrick Ness.

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This book pulled me into its pages and kept me there. Even when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about this book and wondering what was happening to these characters who carved their way into my heart.

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The Way Back
Book Review | 📚📚📚📚 4.5/5
Gavriel Savit | Knopf Books for Young Readers

It was time to read something less heavy (I’ve been reading a lot about social justice and social injustice lately). So, I stumbled across this new book. A YA (young adult) novel with fantasy and Jewish fantasy tomes alluded to in the publisher’s book blurb. I really needed to read this book at this time. It had plenty of tension and mystery, so don’t think that a YA book will be fluffy. This one definitely isn’t. While nearly an epic journey, there were a few points in the story that I wanted more explanation or detail. Some of the “lost” characters didn’t seem to have closure.

What I truly appreciate about this book is how it tells several stories of different people from a small community who all come together in a different space outside their own reality. Death is a prominent theme in this tale, and the subject and its maker are dealt with in a way that doesn’t actually make the reaper the enemy, per se.

Each character (human or otherwise) has a dimension of loss while yearning for something to make better sense of life. There are nods to Neil Gaiman and other contemporary fantasy writers as well as to Jewish folklore and “wise men” tales. It addresses the human condition in a very real way so that readers, young and old, will appreciate and enjoy the stories being pulled together.

DISCLAIMER: I received an ARC through NetGalley.com, but would have read this book had I seen it in a bookstore or online.

MY BLOG: Read my other reviews about books, music, films, etc., at my blog, TuggleGrassReviews or https://tugglegrassblues.wordpress.com/

TAGS: #TuggleGrassReviews #Gavriel Savit #KnopfBooks #NetGalley #TuggleGrassBlues #GavrielSavit #TheWayBack

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It is unusual to encounter a book that is both brilliant and difficult to read. Well-written and unique and so intricately woven that the reader must pay precise attention to every word but is well richer for the experience once all is said and done. While this book took a lot of effort to read, it was definitely worth that effort. A unique glimpse of a culture rarely encountered (at least by me) in speculative fiction. I do not know how much of the lore is of the author's creation and how much originates from existing mythos, but it was fascinating. I highly recommend this book to anyone not looking for just a casual read.

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The book takes place in the 1820’s or so. It follows two kids, the book description said they were teens, although I thought they were more like 12. Yehuda Lieb, son of poor single mother and Bluma granddaughter of Tupik’s midwife, a small Jewish Villaine somewhere in Eastern Europe. They both encounter death one day, and then consequence is a journey through the Far Country, a Jewish land of spirits and demons. Where they decide to make war on Death himself.
I’m not going to lie this one left me floundering about. I was not aware of the characters at all. I suspect they are well known Jewish folk lore characters, but I had no idea who they were. Still I was able to follow the story and enjoy it. I think if I had known who they were some stuff would have made more sense. And the description is right, it did remind me of Neil Gaimen’s American Gods. I enjoyed the read, it was a solid story and I would read more from this author.

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Great story and loved the slight romance. Really enjoyed the characters and how the plot moved and how the characters changed throughout the book. I would read this author again.

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