Far to Go, by Alison Pick, Harper Perennial, 308 pages, paperback, $14.99.
Reviewed by ROBIN DOROSHOW
Following the dedication page and before the beginning of the first chapter, Alison Pick’s Far to Go lists a dozen names of people and their years of birth and death. The first eight individuals on the list have dates of death from 1942 to 1944.
Given the Holocaust theme of the book and their relative youth at their dates of death, I assumed that they were the characters we would meet in the story — individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. The other four on the list, who live well beyond the end of World War II, I guessed to be survivors or children of those killed during the war.
Once I got involved in the story, I forgot all about this list of 12 people.
Immediately following the final page of the book appears another list, this one with 14 names, also with years of birth and death. All but the final two died between 1941 and 1943.
The second list of names is familiar — these names belong to the people who populate the pages of Far to Go. This list of people, coming as it does immediately following the story’s conclusion, seems quite real, despite the fact that this is a work of fiction.
Far to Go tells the story of the Bauer family, wealthy Jews who were passionately secular and patriotic to their native Czechoslovakia, who lost everything as the Sudetenland was relinquished to the Nazis.
The novel opens in the parlor of Pavel and Annaliese Bauer’s home, with Marta, Pepik’s nanny, listening as her employer, Pavel, tells her about the humiliation of his older brother, Misha, who lived with his wife and child in Vienna. Misha had stopped to buy flowers on his way home from work on a late Friday afternoon, when he was approached by a group of young men, who beat him, smashed his car and left him for dead on the street.
Marta couldn’t believe this was possible, but then Misha and his family lived in Vienna, not Czechoslovakia, which was free. And of course, Misha and his family were observant Jews. When Misha was beaten he had been buying flowers to take to his wife for Shabbat. Pavel and Annaliese were completely secular, even celebrating Christmas with a tree and presents for their young son. And Pavel owned a factory; he was an important man in their community.
But we soon learn that this is a delusion, and the Bauers would not be spared despite their wealth, position and disassociation from Judaism. In the end, it is the family’s young son, Pepik, who survives the war only because, after denying the reality of their situation, they are able to secure a spot for him on a Kindertransport. The Kindertransport was a series of trains that left Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, taking young Jewish children away from the clutches of the Nazis.
Far to Go provides an intimate look into the lives of the Bauer family and their nanny. Their lives are intertwined in surprising and not so surprising ways. They are bound together by fear, secrets, loss, love and betrayal. While Pavel, Annaliese and Marta do not survive the war, their children live and try to piece together their histories.
This work of fiction has an authentic feel, and we learn at its conclusion that it is loosely based on the author’s own family history. Pick’s paternal grandparents got out of Czechoslovakia with great difficulty, eventually settling in Quebec in 1941, where they lived and raised their children as Christians. The dozen names that appear at the beginning of the book are members of her own family — those who perished in Europe and her paternal grandparents, uncle and father, who survived.
In 2009, Alison Pick completed both this novel and her conversion to Judaism. Far to Go won the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for fiction in 2011. Pick lives with her husband and daughter in Toronto.
(American Jewish World, 2.3.12)