THE LAKE ON FIRE BY ROSELLEN BROWN
Rosellen Brown’s The Lake on Fire is a stunning work of historical fiction, filled with the sights and sounds of the Gilded Age in Chicago. The novel begins just as Chaya and her family arrive, with other Jewish immigrants, tentatively hopeful for a better future in this new land where they might become Amerikaners. Instead, the families find themselves with little money. Stuck on a hardscrabble farm in Wisconsin, Chaya and her autodidact, thieving, younger brother, Asher, begin to yearn for the possibilities of an education and the vivid worlds found in Chaya’s books. After the siblings escape the bleak life to which their family has surrendered, they arrive by train in Chicago and the novel breaks open into the diverse bustle of the city.
Brown’s story rotates between Chaya’s precise, colorful perspective of the world and Asher’s quick, computational observations of the events and the places around him. The Chicago of Brown’s imagining comes alive in the movements—swishing skirts and bobbing hats. Her young characters’ perspectives absorb and enrich the reader at each interaction, as they juggle new English words and their old language, and calculate the expectations of strangers. The Lake on Fire is a coming-of-age story filled with compelling characters all trying to navigate their own shifting identities.
—Review by Lucas Palmer