The Lake on Fire

  • Review
By – March 14, 2019

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.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

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