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Review: The Lake on Fire, by Rosellen Brown
Sarabande, 2018. 349 pp. $18

Why in the world is a group of Ruthenian Jews from Zhitomir trying to homestead in Wisconsin? That’s the question Chaya-Libbe Shadarowsky asks herself, and by the time she’s seventeen, in 1891, she’s come to a few conclusions. So when her parents pull her out of the school she loves, which has expanded her outlook and given her hope, and plan to marry her off within the community, she must make an excruciating choice.

Chaya loved her parents and felt their difficulties — her mother breathed for them, she was their pulsing machine. She admired her father for the dignity of his commitments. He was a man who bled for others, who ought to have been given a chance to work for the well-being of strangers. But they were living someone else’s life, she was certain of that. Driven to improve their chances, they had chosen wrong, and were covered with the dust of failing farmers. They seemed to attract catastrophe — the rain that soaked the hay before they got it in, the calf that strangled in the womb and could not be pulled out until its poor mother expired, the wind — so harsh it could not be measured — that took down the chimney pipe and let the rain flood in and soak the quilts and bother the babies. Each, if you traced it back a few steps, was the result of their incompetence.

She dreams of escape though she has no money, a struggling grasp of English, and no idea what she could do to keep body and soul together. But Chaya is nothing if not resourceful, and when she makes it to Chicago, her ten-year-old brother, Asher, unexpectedly tags along. His presence delights her, for she loves him more than anyone, yet also terrifies her, and not just because she now must support two people on invisible means. He’s ungovernable, and his impulsive nature, which seeks unfamiliar words and experience, renders him incapable of understanding obstacles, especially other people’s feelings or private property. Though Chaya worries he’ll be arrested for petty theft, the notion that her little brother might be a sociopath or harbor deep rage never occurs to her.

Both siblings bend their talents to social protest. Asher scrambles for a living as sneak thief and wunderkind and befriends the men building the World’s Columbian Exposition, due to open in 1893. With inequality visible on every corner, he becomes a political radical, whereas Chaya, committed to working within the system, crosses paths with Jane Addams and other social reformers from the higher classes. The juxtaposition poses the chief question of The Lake on Fire: Once you see oppression and suffering, how do you respond?

The novel explores several answers, each of which finds representation in a particular character or characters, achieving a universality in the particular. That’s not so unusual; more remarkable is how Brown proceeds with such subtlety that no one, ever, sounds like a talking head. The Lake on Fire therefore offers a primer on characterization, and it’s a demanding art. Brown takes her time, because she wants you to see everything she does and enter her narrative. This is what literary fiction aspires to, painstaking vividness that feels effortless. Readers who assume that portraying physical background, feelings, and character to such an extent must inevitably be highbrow or boring don’t know what they’re missing.

However, the unhurried approach works only because Brown constantly introduces the unexpected through the characters’ reactions, particularly to unforeseen intrusions that no one else would notice, but which mean the world to them. It could be a strange-looking dog on a railroad station platform, a manner of dress, the weather, an odor that carries particular associations, but they all spark a search for meaning and keep the reader close. Once or twice, I wanted the internal narrative to stop, and the external one to resume. But this wasn’t because the story bored me, only that I’d gotten the point, and the tension made me impatient.

More seriously, Asher gets under my skin in the wrong way. After a while, he becomes hard to like, and though I don’t demand liking in fiction, the reasons I dislike him — his self-absorption and lack of empathy — evaporate when it’s thematically inconvenient. If he’s unempathic in general, how does he wind up caring so much about the downtrodden men whom the city gobbles up and spits out? Chaya, usually so clear-eyed, seems to overlook or forgive her brother’s bad behavior on reflex and wonders why others can’t. Her stubbornness paints her (and the author) into a corner, the outlet from which strikes the only contrived note in the book.

Still, The Lake on Fire bowled me over, a splendid example of what literary fiction can be.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.