In 1893 the city of Chicago constructed almost two hundred temporary neoclassical halls for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, or World’s Fair. Made of plaster and fiber and painted a gleaming white, the beautiful buildings awed the public, who, at the end of the event, wished the structures were permanent. In Rosellen Brown’s new novel, set amidst the Exhibition, the fair halls become a metaphor for the ways in which we attach symbolic meaning to each other.
The Lake on Fire is the story of Chaya and Asher Shaderowsky, young Jewish siblings who immigrate from Ukraine to Chicago in the late 1800s. They escape from pogroms with their family and settle on a Wisconsin farm with other Jewish immigrants. Soon, however, the farm fails. These city dwellers have no idea how to coax food and supplies from weak crops.
Frustrated with her prospects, Chaya flees the farm for glamorous, gritty Chicago. Asher, her preternaturally intelligent younger brother, tags along, fascinated by everything he sees. They struggle with poverty and Chaya works from dawn until midnight rolling cheap cigars. With this change of setting, Brown shifts the focus from trauma, immigration, and community to class and political movements.
Brown, who made big splashes with her social justice-oriented novels in the 1980s and has focused on poetry for the last few decades, describes Chaya and Asher’s Chicago with incisive prose that reveals meticulous research. From the slums where the Shaderowskys live and the oppressive factory rooms to the marvelous construction and eventual completion of the Exhibition, Brown’s setting becomes a character in its own right. It’s thrilling to walk the streets and get to know Chicago with Asher — a boy too smart for school, and adorable and confident enough to run around the city stealing whatever he likes, a charming Artful Dodger.
Chaya and Gregory Stillman, the rich socialist who courts her, never feel quite as real as their setting. Chaya’s nebulous characterization makes a certain sense, given her changing circumstances and the exhaustion she faces daily. Still, she’s something of a cipher. Gregory’s dogged pursuit of her, and her lukewarm reception, feel unearned. To her credit, Brown acknowledges this. “He doesn’t love me for myself, he loves me for everything I don’t have. He hasn’t known anyone who’s as different from him as I am,” Chaya says, prompting the reader to reflect on the ways in which we see and use each other as symbols.
Ultimately, that’s what the Exhibition proved to be: a symbol of progress instead of the real thing, a beautiful artifice. Fortunately, Brown’s novel doesn’t fall into the same trap. The thematic considerations match the beauty of its prose.