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The angels take Manhattan

Cover of When the Angels Left the O
A review of When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

“In the back corner of the little synagogue in the shtetl that was so small and out of the way it was only called Shtetl, there was a table where an angel and a demon had been studying Talmud together for some two hundred years.”

The angel, whose name changes based on its current purpose, and the demon, Little Ash, have lived largely unbothered by the outside world. But times are changing: opportunity and persecution are driving a great wave of Jewish immigration, and when an emigre from their village, Essie, goes missing on her journey to America, the angel and Little Ash set off to find her. Along the way they meet Rose, a bold and quick-witted girl determined to live life on her own terms. The unlikely trio encounter injustice at every turn – crooked immigration agents, discrimination at Ellis Island, and sweatshop labor in America – not to mention other demons, and vengeful ghosts.

I picked up this book on the recommendation that it was “for fans of [Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s] Good Omens” (a personal favorite) and indeed, it serves the same opposites-attract, adventurous appeal, without the religious satire and with more personal stakes. It’s Good Omens if Good Omens
were Jewish, queer, and set at the turn of the 20th century. The story flows at a comfortable pace, with just the right amount of page-turning action as the characters travel from Eastern Europe to America, but the charm really lies in the rich characterization of the three main characters: the angel, as it becomes acquainted with the real world – and itself – for the first time. Little Ash, with his distinct lack of demonic magic and desire to prove himself. And Rose’s solid head but uncertain heart. Their moments of self-realization, evolution, and coming out are treated with an evocative tenderness that at times brought tears to my eyes.

Winner of a Stonewall Book Award and a Sydney Taylor Book Award, When the Angels Left the Old Country is a story full of love, grounded in Jewish history and world-building and expansive in its heart and vulnerability.

--reviewed by Hannah M.

Apr 17, 2023