A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
When the Angels Left the Old Country is a fantasy story, but along the way it delivers quite a lot of detail about Jewish life in Poland and Russia during the time of the Tsar, the conditions facing poor immigrants to America, life in the factories and tenements of New York, and the first stirrings of the labor movement -- all seen through the eyes of an angel and a demon. The dialogue and narrative are packed with Yiddish and Hebrew words and expressions, and a lengthy glossary at the end of the book explains them.
Strong messages of community, belonging, mutual aid, and dealing righteously with one another. Friendship (centuries old, in some cases), courage, and empathy play a strong role, as do resourcefulness and creative thinking. Good tends to overcome evil, but it's usually complicated.
Positive Role Models
As you'd expect from a story about an angel and a demon, both more or less outcasts from their own communities and best friends to each other for centuries, the characters here tend to be complex, nuanced, and inclined to reveal unexpected dimensions at even more unexpected moments. The angel, who goes by Uriel for most of the story, has no gender and uses the pronoun "it," is a devoted Talmud student, always strives to do the right thing and help those in need, which it regards as its job. Thus the angel's demonic friend Little Ash (also a devoted Talmud student, who always takes the opposite argument to his friend's in their discussions) finds it especially easy to con his angelic pal into doing what he wants if he can frame it as a mitzvah -- but somehow winds up doing.a lot of good deeds. By the end of the story, both of them have caused a good amount of violence, mayhem, and death, but in the process protected a lot of innocents, avenged a few murders, and righted a number of wrongs. Sixteen-year-old Rose, devastated when her best friend, with whom she'd pretty much planned a great life in America, gets married instead, proves herself a force to be reckoned with on the wrongs-righting front, as does teenage Essie, whose disappearance somewhere between Poland and New York sets the wheels in motion. When the girls finally meet, there's a strong attraction. Factory workers in New York are trying to organize after one of their mothers dies on the job, and peripheral characters are involved in the effort. The factory owner is said to be squeezing every bit of profit he can out of his exhausted workers, but gambles it all away every Friday night instead of going to services at the synagogue. There are also a lot of evil characters, human and otherwise, including gangsters, murderers, a demonic doctor who kills patients, and other dark beings.
Most of the characters, human and otherwise, are 19th century Jewish immigrants to New York from the Pale, a region of Eastern Europe covering parts of what are now Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and other countries. While they are all Jewish, some are rich, some are poor, some are wise, some are foolish, some are good and kind, some are cruel and wicked. A Jewish angel from a poor Polish shtetl (whose best friend is a demon) is shocked at the material richness and spiritual emptiness of the synagogue in New York where the wealthy Jews go, and at its rabbi, who seems to be fine with it. Murderers and their victims, factory bosses and their worked-literally-to-death employees, angels and demons -- all Jewish. There are also many peripheral Gentile characters, again some human, some supernatural, some kind, some evil -- and, like their Jewish counterparts, complex and often surprising. In gender-related matters, a teen girl character feels abandoned when her lifelong best friend marries, and eventually falls in love and shares a kiss with another teen girl who's important to the story. Little Ash, a demon, thinks of himself as male, while the angel, who uses the pronoun "it," is nervous about the whole concept of gender. The Jewish practice of separating male and female members of the congregation at services and on other occasions plays a role in the story. Most characters speak Yiddish, some speak Hebrew, some English, and some other languages. An extensive glossary in the back offers definitions of Yiddish and Hebrew expression that come up in the story and dialogue.
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Violence & Scariness
Violence, both human and supernatural, is a constant presence, as humans, angels, and demons kill, sometimes for just and noble reasons. A rich man gets that way by murdering his victims and stealing their goods, but their ghosts take a hand in his destruction (which involves his soul being snatched through his eye sockets and eaten by a demon). Occasional gunplay, sometimes with unexpected results. Supernatural powers sometimes get out of hand, e.g. unintentionally setting buildings on fire. A character possessed by a dybbuk (a wandering soul that enters and controls a human body) punches the angel in the nose. A factory owner in debt to a gangster plans violent measures to suppress a strike caused by his mistreatment of his workers. His goons beat one of the characters who's the leader of the strike and a father-to-be. The shadow of pogroms (massacres of Jews) is a big part of why the various Jewish characters head for America in the first place. Sins are physically visible as dark beings creeping along the ground and over the faces of people who commit them.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Two teen girls fall in love and share a kiss in a moment of triumph. A character is very pregnant and eventually has twins. The connection between demon Little Ash (identifying as male) and the angel (genderless) is centuries old, deep to the point of telepathy, lively, argumentative, profoundly loving, but not overtly physical: "Little Ash's eyelashes cast a shadow that hid the bruises under his eyes, and with the bright lights, Uriel could see the galaxy of his freckles. This face it knew better than its own, because it only ever saw its own face by accident, and Little Ash's face it was always either looking at, or searching for. It wanted to tell him everything that had ever happened, in its whole existence, and why every single thing it was telling him had led to them both being here, and why that was a miracle."
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"To hell with morning services!" says Little Ash.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that When the Angels Left the Old Country is the first novel of Sasha Lamb, who describes its basic concept as "the classic Yiddish novel, but it's queer." Steeped in 19th century Jewish culture, it's the tale of an angel (genderless) and a demon (male) who've been friends and argued about Talmud for centuries in an obscure shtetl in Poland, when they find themselves off to America to rescue the daughter of the village baker, who hasn't been heard from since she left for New York. There's lots of violence, supernatural and otherwise, including soul-stealing (by extracting the soul through the eyeballs), hauntings, creepy-crawly sins, shootings, torched buildings, beatings by goons, and more. Two teen girls fall in love and eventually kiss. Meanwhile, the labor movement is growing as factory workers stand up for themselves, and there's a lot of you-are-there history. There's a strong moral compass and hard-earned wisdom as the angel's efforts to do good and keep his friend out of trouble take them to a lot of unexpected places -- including becoming more human in ways they didn't really plan. The narrative includes a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew words and expressions, and a large glossary sheds light on them.
Is It Any Good?
Sacha Lamb's stunning first novel is an imaginative, emotional, thought-provoking study of good and evil, being human, and the unexpected miracles of love. Steeped in 19th century Jewish culture, When the Angels Left the Old Country is the tale of two supernatural best friends, an angel and a demon, whose bond is strong despite the fact they've never agreed about anything. It's also the story of 16-year-old Rose fleeing her best friend's betrayal, how their paths cross en route to America, what they find when they get there, and what they do about it. Ghosts, demons, murderers, thieves, cruel factory owners, and Ellis Island are just a few of the perils they face along the way. Packed with Yiddish and Hebrew expressions (defined in a glossary) and phrasings, the narrative voice is unique, immersive, and irresistible.
Here, in the first of many events that make the angel wonder what it's gotten itself into, Little Ash has just extracted and devoured the soul of a murderer who foolishly tried to kill the angel.
"The angel hesitated a moment. 'I suppose someone ought to watch over his body,' it said, thinking of the Law, and of tradition.
"'Why?' said Little Ash, not unreasonably. "The demons already got him. Come on, you. We should be gone already. Unless you want I should eat the police?'"
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