The Way Back

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Dark, complex, wise fantasy is steeped in Jewish folklore.

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Stands out for positive role models.

Educational Value

The Way Back is steeped in Eastern European Jewish culture and village life during an era when getting snatched and forced into the Tsar's army is an ongoing threat. Much detail about Jewish daily life, traditions, and celebrations; at one point the Rebbe's (untranslated) speeches are in Hebrew characters. Also mythic characters like the Talmudic character Lilith, Adam's first wife, who appears as a demon here. Napoleon, en route to Russia with his army, makes a brief cameo appearance.

Positive Messages

Strong message of love, friendship, family, and community, and how they're all the more important in the face of Death and the fact that things rarely go as you would wish and hope. Many cautionary examples of how easy it is to fall into the power of demons (like, say, Mammon, a sort of god of greed), and why it's important not to. Kindness and listening to good advice are often helpful.

Positive Role Models

The revered Rebbe, who's about to celebrate his granddaughter's wedding as the story opens, hovers protectively over his world, spreads much practical wisdom, and in various ways helps characters be their best selves. Issur Frumkin, the butcher's son and village rich kid, starts out as someone who bullies others, but he chooses to help someone in danger, with fateful (good and bad), life-changing consequences. Death has a job to do and an important role in maintaining cosmic order, but things don't always go according to his plans either. As their quests -- and issues with Death -- intertwine, childhood pals Yehuda and Bluma save each other from deadly peril, offer support, pool their talents, and forge a strong bond -- which is good, because there's no shortage of demons, monsters, and undead beings wishing them ill.


Death is a central character and carries off many other characters over the course of the story, usually against their will and often unexpectedly, wielding a small but scary weapon that, fatefully, falls into other characters' hands; the two tween protagonists match wits with him along the way. A girl gives up first her face and then her name trying to avoid Death. Characters also find themselves in the power of various demons, with whom they make deals to advance their quests and often pay a heavy price (one costs Yehuda an eye, for example). The demons are especially interested in getting into the world of humans (where they're normally not allowed) and wreaking havoc. Humans who fall under the demons' power become grotesquely cartoonish, like the merchant and his wife hovering obsessively over their huge wealth, or the kid who's turned into a wheelchair for a demon. Lots of scenes with graveyards, bones, restless souls, and creepy situations. Also monsters, corpses, undead armies, etc. A fistfight in which one teen breaks another's nose has repercussions.


A character tells another to piss into the wind. Frequent use of "bastard."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Considerable drinking liquor and smoking tobacco by adults, mostly to celebrate. An adult character is a drunk employed by the village out of charity. Death gets drunk, with strange results.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Way Back, by Gavriel Savit (Anna and the Swallow Man), is a rich, complex, irony-drenched, dark fantasy tale steeped in Jewish folklore. Demons, monsters, rotting corpses and armies of the undead wreak havoc among humans whenever they can. Pitted against them is the holy Rebbe (or rabbi), who hovers protectively over his little world, comes to the rescue of those in distress, offers life-changing advice to seekers -- and who the demons and other evil beings would love to turn to the dark side. Then there's Death, who's just out there doing his job until, in the process of carrying off a young teen's grandmother, he loses an important tool of his trade -- and soon isn't the only one trying to retrieve it. In the general disorder that follows, another teen's father is killed before his time, and the kid is determined to make Death give him back. Characters make deals with demons to advance their quests and often pay a heavy price (one costs a kid an eye). A teen breaks another's nose in a fistfight. There are lots of scenes with graveyards, bones, restless souls, and creepy situations. The spooky story leaves no doubt that dark, dangerous forces are afoot in the world and often get their way, but love, family, friendship -- and a willingness to heed wise words -- serve young, often rash heroes well.

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What's the story?

As THE WAY BACK opens, young Yehuda Leib -- who's been supporting his poor mom by stealing from the other villagers for years --must suddenly flee the shtetl of Tupik to avoid being conscripted into the Tsar's army. He figures he'll lose himself in the crowds in the neighboring town of Zubinsk, where the holy Rebbe is about to celebrate the marriage of his youngest granddaughter, and all -- without exception -- are invited to join the festivities. As it turns out, plenty of others are heading to Zubinsk, including Issur Frumkin, the rich kid whose nose Yehuda has just broken in a fistfight. Also Death, who's just carried off an old lady in Tupik and who has unknown business at the wedding. Their paths soon converge, with unexpected, far-reaching, fatal results and many plans gone awry. Meanwhile, the demons, spirits, undead, and other malevolent beings are also planning to join the party and take whatever prey presents itself. And Bluma, the old lady's granddaughter, has a powerful object Death left behind in the struggle.

Is it any good?

Nineteenth-century Jewish teens match wits with demons and Death in Gavriel Savrit's creepy, complex, and ultimately life-affirming tale. Pitting a saintly Rebbe against a host of evil forces and general corrupters of the virtuous, The Way Back takes young Yehuda and Bluma through horrific dangers and confronts them with soul-destroying perils, with little to sustain them in darkest moments but a red scarf and a loaf of increasingly stale challah (bread). There are monsters galore, horrific losses, a lot of grief, but also light, love, wisdom.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about folk (and other) tales involving Death as a character. What other examples do you know about -- and how does the version of Death in The Way Back compare with some of the other versions?

  • What do you think of the horror factor in this story? Is violence easier to take in a fairy tale on the page than in a movie or TV show? Why or why not?

  • Chanukah and candle-lighting in the dark of winter are a strong theme in The Way Back. What other customs and traditions involve using light to keep the dark at bay?

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