My husband and I were recently attacking our overburdened shelves to pry loose some contributions for an annual book sale. When I give away books I like to remove all signs of previous ownership, so I pulled out yellowing bookmarks and ancient press releases; here and there a letter fluttered out. That was how, having retrieved a note from a friend dated 1987, I discovered to my astonishment that, though I have published four books since then, my just-published novel, The Lake on Fire, was already gestating almost thirty years ago. Ted S, in a hastily scrawled footnote, had asked “Are you still pursuing those Jewish New Jersey chicken farmers?”
As it happens, I had never pursued exactly those long-gone Yiddishe peasants, of whom, years ago, there had been many. But apparently I’d been mentioning to my friends that I was intrigued by another unlikely population of Jewish farmers, the brave, hapless, defeated representatives of a movement called Am Olam, “friends of the world,” or, if you prefer, “The Eternal People.” With noble intentions, Baron de Hirsch and others funded a few agricultural societies, and with the romantic lure of a return to the soil (of which Jews were prevented ownership in Russia), the achievement of a “livelihood … by the diligent and useful labor of their hands,” they sent off, meagerly endowed, hundreds to the Dakotas, to Louisiana and Wisconsin, Michigan and, yes, to New Jersey.
I had never heard of Am Olam and I haven’t met many who have (though those chicken farmers seem to have a lot of descendants). I happened upon the history in a lively and exhaustive book by Ande Manners called Poor Cousins, whose subtitle is “The 3 million ‘other Jews’ from beyond the Pale — and how the elite of ‘Our Crowd’ tried to Americanize them.”
Scant though it was, the book lays out evidence that every outpost of Am Olam was ultimately blighted and, finally, defeated: the farm in Sicily Island, Louisiana was inundated by the flooding Mississippi and its families died in great numbers of yellow fever. The other cohorts, so hopeful but so inexperienced and lacking much functional English, suffered what we can assume were the same natural plagues that we read about in Giants in the Earth and My Antonia: grasshoppers, ill-timed rain, and possibly from hard dealing with local vendors who knew an easy mark when they saw one. Even the New Jersey farmers — though they fared better perhaps because they were exempt from the harshness of life on the plains — ended up having to take factory jobs and farm on the side.
What an invitation to speculate about what it must have been like to have been promised so much gain and to have harvested so little! I dreamed up a little world of strivers from Zhitomir and dropped them in New Hampshire, to which I have a connection going back more than forty years. I gave my young protagonist the uncompromising name Chaya-Libbe and attached to her a bizarrely precocious little brother, Asher, and I multiplied with relish the details of their family’s disappointments.
Reader, the book did not work. The sad farm, the nasty New England winters, a plot so lean of substance that I can’t remember it … Perhaps mercifully, I cannot find the manuscript, but I know that, when I showed it to my then-agent, she was (this is an understatement) not encouraging. Reluctantly, I put the book aside.
But as I said at the outset, it’s been a long time since the idea was a gleam in my writerly eye. In the meantime, entirely by accident, I moved to Chicago. And every writer knows, I think, that it takes more than an initial impulse to make a story; for me it has always taken two impulses that, in sudden encounter, light a metaphoric match: Pfffft! And in that confrontation comes the drama otherwise incomplete.
Fortunately, I live a few blocks from the glorious Lake Michigan and every morning before I go to my desk I walk along its shore. One day, instead, I detoured around the Museum of Science and Industry, a huge building apparently held up by four stone caryatids in Grecian robes and a good many other imposing pillars. I knew that this is the only remaining building from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; the rest were intended to be extremely impermanent — the Fair lived for six months. And, though this was more of a poet’s than a fiction writer’s bit of reverie, I found myself walking the green but empty grounds thinking, “It was here, an incredible construction, and it’s gone, almost totally gone” — and, needless to say, I saw the parallel with our own brief lives.
So, its complication suddenly visible, located, there was my story. I moved my farmers to nearby Wisconsin, delivered Chaya and Asher to a failing farm not coincidentally near the town that Sister Carrie (of Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name) abandoned for the big city just south — Chicago! — and brought them here as well, to face unimagined complications and possibilities. Provoked by another book, I Belong to the Working Class, the biography of an immigrant, journalist and social justice activist named Rose Pastor Stokes, I found a heroine on whom to base my Chaya as she puzzles out a way to live a useful life in a city both beautiful — the Exposition was a glory! — and desperately cruel to its teeming poor. And there is a man in the mix: Both Stokes and Chaya are forced to ask themselves whether marrying into wealth is a betrayal of their class. Asher sees himself as a mini Robin Hood and wreaks havoc in the name of morality. Once again, good intentions gone awry.
It is no coincidence that Dreiser’s Sister Carrie boarded the train on which she escaped her stunted life in a town (probably named for the occasion) called Columbia City, and so does Chaya-Libbe. Though it is a masterpiece, Dreiser’s book is stylistically ungainly and stolid, but there is one brilliant line in it that I considered using as an epigraph:
“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”
120 years ago, Dreiser could have been speaking about The Lake on Fire.
Rosellen Brown is the author of the novels Civil Wars, Half a Heart, Tender Mercies, Before and After, and six other books. Her stories have appeared frequently in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories and Best Short Stories of the Century. She now teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.