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The lake on fire
2018
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  New York Times Review

ROSELLEN BROWN KNOWS THINGS. She knows that smack in the middle of the river of love in which we hope to swim there's a rock that will split your shin, and there's a snake coiled beside that rock. Possibly, you will just die of snakebite but more likely, you will live with venom pouring through your veins, festering and suppurating for the rest of your days. Rosellen Brown knows that regret is more likely than redemption and that people may talk the talk like nobody's business (and her characters do talk the talk of every liberal American belief and movement of the last 70 years) and still lose their grip on their ideals. Hell, not just "may." They are very likely to. Rosellen Brown has a great ear, a great eye, a great love of the painful twists and turns that happen in a human life and the big twists and turns of American history. She lays out these gifts in "The Lake on Fire," her first overtly "historical" novel and her first novel in 18 years. In all of her novels and even in the poems of her deeply moving "Cora Fry," Brown focuses on the public and the private, the clashing claims of need and want, of honor and happiness, and conflicts of every kind: political and generational ("The Autobiography of My Mother"), the soul of the South, integration and segregation ("Civil Wars"), men being men and women being women, with so little happiness on either side ("Tender Mercies") and the extreme difficulty of being a good person and a good parent ("Before and After"). In "The Lake on Fire," she begins with the indelible dark, damp misery of Jewish farmers (not really farmers: city people who found themselves in a Wisconsin field and built shaky cabins, leaky chicken coops and grew nothing that anyone could eat) and our protagonists, the insatiable, yearning and fierce Chaya Shaderowsky and her clever (possibly brilliant) little changeling of a brother, Asher. Even as Chaya becomes a fascinating Henry James heroine, tormented by her wishes and her losses, Asher remains a sad, talky but unknowable elf. As with so many savants, we can appreciate his gifts, admire his bravado and still never know him. Chaya doesn't require that we love her but, as with all Brown's female protagonists, you know her and you see her, even when she makes us wince, in sympathy, or pain, or even dislike. The compelling, gaudy background is the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and its electric (literally) impact on the Midwest and on America's imagination. We chart Chaya's escape from the farm, her plodding, painful life in a cigar factory and the boardinghouse (run by the blunt and pragmatic Mrs. Gottleib), then her rise in the large, dark and expensive houses she enters through her brother's dazzling little shows of memory and cognition (he talks about the Punic Wars!) and through her suitor, a stubborn, liberal-leaning wealthy man who is attracted to Chaya, and even more to her squashed cabbage-leaf role in his Gilded Age world. "The Lake on Fire" is about the making of America, the bones on which it has always been built, and the way the wheels turn (even now) and the way they turned then, moving forward, crushing some, advancing others, and within this epic story, the making of a person, Chaya Shaderowsky, rising and falling, failing and flailing and making her painful, blazingly aware way, in our America. AMY BLOOM is the author, most recently, of "White Houses."

  Publishers Weekly Review

In Brown's stellar, evocative novel, Jewish siblings Chaya and Asher Shaderowsky move with their family to America from Ukraine to work on a Wisconsin collective farm. As a young woman in 1891, in order to escape an arranged marriage, Chaya flees with eight-year-old Asher to Chicago, where she finds work in a cigar factory and he becomes a thief, modeling himself after Robin Hood. Chaya is courted by Gregory Stillman, a young writer from a wealthy background; she can scarcely believe that this gentile wants to marry her. Of course, their relationship causes problems with Gregory's family. Asher, meanwhile, has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and is drawn to the new University of Chicago and the Columbian Exposition, where he finds employment. Radicalized, he attempts to help those thrown out of work by the Exposition's completion. Uneasy with her new wealth and marriage, Chaya's allegiance is split between the haves and the have-nots, even as she becomes pregnant and an act of terrorism threatens to undo her new life. In Chaya and Asher, Brown (Before and After) creates two memorable strivers. She transports the reader to Gilded Age Chicago and recreates the Jewish immigrant experience as incisively as Henry Roth in Call It Sleep. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
The Lake on Fire is an epic narrative that begins among 19th century Jewish immigrants on a failing Wisconsin farm. Dazzled by lore of the American dream, Chaya and her strange, brilliant, young brother Asher stow away to Chicago; what they discover there, however, is a Gilded Age as empty a façade as the beautiful Columbian Exposition luring thousands to Lake Michigan's shore. The pair scrapes together a meager living--Chaya in a cigar factory; Asher, roaming the city and stealingbooks and jewelry to share with the poor, until they find different paths of escape. An examination of family, love, and revolution, this profound tale resonates eerily with today's current events and tumultuous social landscape. The Lake on Fire is robust, gleaming, and grimy all at once, proving that celebrated author Rosellen Brown is back with a story as luminous as ever.
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