Fleeing the pogroms of Russia for the promise of America, Chaya Shaderowsky winds up, improbably, in the wilds of 19th-century Wisconsin. But her people are not farmers; “gray-faced and weak-fingered from too many years in a murderous city,” they don’t know how to make the land thrive. And at 14, Chaya has seen enough to know she wants a world with more color than this failing, insular community can provide. So she runs away to Chicago, and her beloved baby brother Asher secretly follows. Beneath its Gilded Age glitter, though, the reality of city life brings soot and struggle and long, hard lessons for them both.
If there wasn’t a 2018 copyright on the title page, The Lake on Fire could easily be filed alongside leather-bound volumes of Henry James or Theodore Dreiser; it shares nearly half a plot with Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. But Rosellen Brown (Before and After) is telling another, more modern narrative too. While Chaya labors in stinking factories and falls cautiously for a wealthy young idealist, Asher is entranced by the underworld thrumming below the Windy City and the strange magic of English, his newly adopted “stepmother tongue.” Though Fire licks at the edges of something it never fully ignites, it’s still a sharp study in class, politics, and manifest destiny — a story that somehow never grows old, no matter how many times it’s told. B+
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The Lake on Fire