Sacha Lamb’s YA novel WHEN ANGELS LEFT THE OLD COUNTRY (Levine Querido, 2022) follows an angel, Uriel, and a demon, Little Ash, as they leave their shtetl and journey to America to rescue a young woman who has gone missing. WHEN ANGELS LEFT THE OLD COUNTRY is a heartfelt and compelling read that celebrates Jewish folklore, identity, love, loss, and more. Sacha has created a uniquely layered and nuanced story that will keep readers engaged and invested from the start.
There are a lot of intertwined elements in WHEN THE ANGELS LEFT THE OLD COUNTRY – good and evil, friendship, identity, love, Jewish history, folklore, and fantasy. As a writer, how did you keep track of the threads?
It helped a lot that they are so intertwined, because it’s harder to drop a single thread when it’s woven through all the other threads! If we want to go with the textile metaphor, the characters are the “shuttle” pulling all these threads through the narrative. Each of the three protagonists (angel Uriel, demon Little Ash, and human girl Rose) is going through an identity journey alongside their physical journey from the Old Country to the “Golden Land.” Uriel’s and Little Ash’s personal narratives of identity are shaped by their supernatural natures and the implications those have for their relationship to the Jewish community–Uriel has to decide what communal expectations it wants to live up to, and what expectations weigh too heavily on it, while Little Ash has to push back against the idea that demons don’t have communal obligations. Having everything tied together through the central characters kept it all from flying apart.
Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration for your main characters, angel and demon, Uriel and Little Ash?
The concept of chevruta, traditional partnered Talmud study, has a lot of narrative energy to it. It’s basically learning through constructive argument. It can also be a deeply personal relationship, and we see an example of that in Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan in Talmud. They had a very close relationship that lasted until their deaths, a relationship with a lot of love in it even when they disagreed. I really wanted to write something that used all the rich energy of a chevruta relationship, and casting the partners as supernatural opposites brought in some magic and also a lot of humor. I immediately knew I could do something really fun with the push-and-pull of Little Ash and Uriel’s argumentative relationship, where they’re sort of glued together by their difference from each other. They help each other learn and grow by offering different perspectives, and each of them has strength in places the other is uncertain about.
Research is such an important part of any historical writing, including fiction and fantasy. Did you do your research before you began to write the story? Was there something specific in your research that sparked your ideas?
My research for this book was actually a kind of “freebie” from my Master’s degree in history. My master’s thesis is on Jewish women immigrants in the 1920s, so I did a ton of background research on Jewish immigration and had all of it in my head already. I love history, it’s something I’ve been passionate about since I was a kid reading historical fiction. When you’re doing research you can find a ton of incomplete stories about people’s lives, and I’m very fascinated by that. In particular, stories of LGBT+ lives are often somewhat hidden. One story in particular that I love appears in BAD RABBI by Eddy Portnoy (a collection of anecdotes from the interwar Yiddish newspapers). Some Jewish printers were arrested for making false documents, and they were making them for two types of person: one, migrants who needed to travel and couldn’t get papers due to antisemitic legislation, and two, men who were living queer lives and didn’t want their families to find out. That’s such a fascinating intersection of people, to me, and implies a much bigger story. So it’s those little hidden corners of history that really inspire me.
There may be some unfamiliar content for some of your younger readers, but your world-building is so compelling they will be pulled into the story. What do you hope your readers come away with after reading WHEN THE ANGELS LEFT THE OLD COUNTRY?
I hope they’ll be interested in the history, and in Jewish folklore, too. There’s so much to learn about both of those. I hope in particular that people will see the historical setting as one where all kinds of people existed, just like they do today, and anyone who feels cut off from history–LGBT+ young people in particular–can know that everything I put in the book is inspired by real people who did exist. We’ve always been here!
There is so much heart in this story – it feels like a personal love letter to the generations that came before you, an acknowledgment of their lives and loves, and losses. What does it mean for you to have WHEN THE ANGELS LEFT THE OLD COUNTRY out in the world?
It’s amazing. I love this book so much, I made it to comfort myself after working on a different, more difficult project. I wanted to put everything I loved into it, so it’s absolutely thrilling to have other people respond by loving the book in return.
Thank you, Sacha!
Sacha Lamb is a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow in young adult fiction, and a graduate in Library and Information Science and History from Simmons University. Sacha lives in New England with a miniature dachshund mix named Anzu Bean. When The Angels Left The Old Country is their debut novel.