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.)
Kirkus Reviews, “Best Fiction of 2018”
Entertainment Weekly, "Fall preview: The 20 books you need to read this season"
Newsday, "What to read this week"
The National Book Review, "5 Hot Books”
Chicago Public Library, “Best of the Best Books for 2018"
2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award, Montaigne Medal Finalist
Reading Group Choices 2020 Official Selection
"Often praised for her prose, in her long-awaited sixth novel Brown (Half a Heart, 2000, etc.) sings as euphoniously as ever, whether she is writing about the filth and stench of the city, about the magnificence of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, or about love. . . . A transporting drama of class and love, steeped in period feeling, written with beauty and conviction."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"In her first historical novel, an exquisite, suspenseful, and character-driven tale of two cities, poet and deeply inquisitive fiction writer Brown (Before and After, 1992; Half a Heart, 2000) takes measure of the divide between rich and poor during Chicago’s resplendent World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Narrating from Chaya's and Asher’s divergent perspectives, Brown describes with sensuous intensity the lavish lives of the elite and the desperation of the unemployed, the miasmas of sweatshops and the radiant fair, which decays into a mere facade. . . . In an astute and enrapturing variation on Edith Wharton’s foundational Gilded Age novel, The House of Mirth (1905), and, in accord with Dickens, Dreiser, and Doctorow, Brown imaginatively, compassionately, and spellbindingly dramatizes timeless questions of survival and social conscience."
Booklist, starred 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. . . .[Brown] transports the reader to Gilded Age Chicago and recreates the Jewish immigrant experience as incisively as Henry Roth in Call It Sleep."
Publishers Weekly, starred review
"If you don’t know this name, get familiar: Brown is one of our best living fiction writers, spending much of a career well under-the-radar. Her new novel, remarkably her first in nearly 20 years, is an epic that questions the American dream in a 19th-century immigrant saga."
Entertainment Weekly, “Fall preview: The 20 books you need to read this season"
"With her first book in nearly two decades, the author of Before and After and Half a Heart has written a big, ambitious social novel that registers growing inequality, with fully realized characters, a marvelous sense of place, and a profound heart."
The National Book Review
"In response to her novel, The Lake on Fire, Rosellen Brown has been compared to both Jane Austen and Tillie Olsen. After reading it, I can see the disparate strands of each. In fact, it’s almost like Tillie Olsen got her hands on an early copy of Mansfield Park and said, 'Come now, Jane, you know this would never work in the real world.'. . . [The book's] dual narrative forces the reader to move between two modes of empathy: one of anxiety for Chaya’s strife, and the other, a nod to the more universal concerns we have for the poor, like workers who are treated unfairly, or large segments of the population living in filth. . . . In describing this suffering, Rosellen Brown’s prose shines. It is lucid, rhythmic and offers vivid descriptions of the city. . . [W]e see Brown’s ability to not only recreate late 19th century Chicago, but recreate it with beautiful sentences."
“Like Jane Austen, she digs deeper and deeper into the territory she has staked out, always coming up with brilliant new jewels. In her books, Brown explores intimate family relationships while engaging social issues.”
Laurie Muchnick, Newsday
"It's been 18 years since we had a novel from the author of Civil Wars and Tender Mercies, but this tale of Jewish immigrant siblings in 19th-century Chicago was worth the wait. Chaya manufactures cigars in a sweatshop; Asher survives as a petty thief; Brown depicts their world with prose that soars."
Tom Beer, Newsday
"In The Lake on Fire, Brown has reconstructed late-19th-century Chicago with astonishing skill. She has made the vanished World’s Columbian Exposition, with its vaudevillelike Midway and its mammoth Ferris wheel, acutely alive. She has stained our fingers with her cigar factory and bulged our pockets with stolen jewels. And yet, for all of its sensate qualities, Brown’s story is finally a love story, which is to say a timeless story about why and how and at what cost we take care of one another. . . . The Lake on Fire is her master class."
Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune
"Her first book in 18 years, The Lake on Fire is a fascinating look at the World’s Columbian Exposition from the perspective of young Jewish immigrants who flee their family farm in Wisconsin."
Adam Morgan, Chicago Magazine
"Justly revered local author Brown writes big novels about families and social issues that often end up on the big screen. Her latest begs for such treatment."
Anne Moore, Crain's Chicago Business
"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 Arkansas International
"Rosellen Brown's astonishing new novel about 19th century Chicago reads as if it were written by one of the great 19th century novelistsEliot, Tolstoy, Dickens all come to mind because of the breadth and depth of her insight into character and her understanding of social class, and the pure elegance of her writing. It's a Cinderella story that knows not to be a Cinderella story and it takes you into the heart of a Chicago teeming with poverty, crime, money, greed, do-gooding, and ambitiona long-lost Chicago that gave birth to what the city is today."
Nina Barrett, Bookends and Beginnings, Evanston, Illinois
“What a pleasure to have a new novel from Rosellen Brown, an important voice in fiction; and what a particular pleasure to have this novel, which is not only a brilliant coming-of-age-in-the Gilded-Age story, as well as an engrossing sibling story, but is also a keen exploration of ideas around heroism, making one’s way in the world, and the tensions between material comforts and the persistent desire to be of use. Vivid and rich, Rosellen Brown’s book swept me in and held me there.”
“What a remarkable feat of imagination, recreation and literary craft is this superb novel set in turn-of-the-century Chicago. What really drives it, in the best tradition of Dreiser, Doctorow, Bellow, Tillie Olson, Anzia Yesierska and Henry Roth, is the deeply sympathetic involvement in moments of consciousness and action, by which a seemingly lost world is triumphantly retrieved.”
Two young Jewish immigrants run away from home to make their way in the seething, harsh tumult of 19th-century Chicago.
Life has been nothing but sorrow, boredom, and miserable hard work since Chaya-Libbe Shaderowsky's family arrived in their New World home, a farm in Wisconsin. When she realizes they are about to marry her off to the first nebbish who shows up, she hops a train. But she's got company: her 8-year-old brother, Asher, an extraordinary child with prodigal powers of language and memory, whom Chaya adores beyond all else. Arriving in Chicago penniless and clueless, the two are led to the Jewish quarter by a handsome young man named Gregory Stillman (perhaps this won't be the last we see of him). Taken in by a childless widow, Chaya finds work in a sweatshop manufacturing cigars; Asher hits the streets as a cunning shoplifter and pickpocket. Before long the child's stunning intellectual gifts lead to work as a party entertainer. The opportunity to compare the lots of the rich and poor, living at such vast extremes then as now, leads each of the Shaderowskys to a sharpened political awareness and a simmering rage which plays out with shocking results in the book's final chapters. Often praised for her prose, in her long-awaited sixth novel Brown (Half a Heart, 2000, etc.) sings as euphoniously as ever, whether she is writing about the filth and stench of the city, about the magnificence of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, or about love. "The first time Gregory kissed Chaya, it was just beside her ear, a gentle, oblique touching of his lips to the skin that astounded her by what it taught her of the connection between the distant outposts of her body, which had never before reported their existence." Among the historical flourishes is the appearance of Jane Addams—"she had the air of an aunt about her...committed to movement, [she] was not a proper noun so much as a verb"—to play an important role in their lives.
A transporting drama of class and love, steeped in period feeling, written with beauty and conviction.