320 pp. Sarabande Books
Reviewed by Laurie Levy
Banish your copy of The Devil in the White City.
The Lake on Fire, a fascinating new novel by Rosellen Brown, though lacking the murder mystery factor, goes Erik Larson’s 2003 tome one better. She not only takes a microscope to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, but amplifies and embellishes the creation and dissolution of the era’s fabled White City with her tale of two young Eastern European transplants who brave the wilds of Chicago with passion and courage.
The two, Chaya and Asher Shaderowsky, are siblings who dream of life beyond the extreme poverty endured by their immigrant parents on a Wisconsin farm, and stow away to Chicago. The streets are not made of gold, however; teenaged Chaya, who mourns her lost schooling, finds work rolling cigars in a sadly uninspiring factory, while her brilliant not-yet-adolescent brother busies himself pickpocketing, when not educating himself in the ways of the world.
The new Chicagoans are Jewish, a fact that Brown uses less as a vehicle for faith than as a way to show how language will define their future: for Chaya a learning experience to elevate her speech eventually from the Yiddishisms of her mother to the upper-class pronouncements of her lover’s Chicagoese, and for Asher a forever fascination with the American English words his advanced mind constantly plays with: “’he would be fingered,’ she said, like yard goods.’ Yard? Like the grass they were crossing? Goods? Bads, more like it. How unsensible, this language, whose strangeness only ceased when he was asleep.”
Chicagoan Brown takes her time relating the duo’s adventures. Neither elder sister nor younger brother is content, however, to be an immigrant failure, and their lives in the big city evolve. In Chaya’s case, the change agent is a young man named Gregory Stillman, a Protestant who falls in love with Chaya and, though coming from a privileged home and pulling her out of the lower class, manages to be a Socialist. In a way, I was reminded of Brown’s earlier (2000) novel, Half A Heart, in which Ronnee, a biracial daughter, fights an internal war between wanting to love her (white, Jewish) mother, and loathing her for abandoning her. Chaya, in much the same manner, loves Gregory almost in spite of his upscale upbringing, but in the end, with their baby on the way, swallows her misgivings and accepts him. Chaya has aged gracefully and grown emotionally — an admiring friend of the Chicago legend, Jane Addams of Hull House — yet she is a product of her time, not to mention her heart; and she is never going to be a rebel.
Which Asher, on the other hand, definitely is. And a young genius. He reads to people as a performer, answering questions for those who know less than he does. He is nevertheless still a child, and moving through the streets, takes on unorthodox passions and identities: boyish friend to the working men who build the White City, and star attraction on the Midway (he answers questions in his “prince” outfit, while rifling through the pockets of his audience ). In the end, even as Chaya becomes a stable citizen of the white city, Asher falls into crime and gets away with it. (I’ll say no more.)
The writing, as one expects from Brown, is skillful and richly evocative. Her research burrows deeply into the life and times of what could have been dusty characters; the period is at all times believable. Chaya’s is the story of a vibrant girl who refuses to believe she can’t learn and thrive in the magic city, (and the reader is encouraged to cheer her on. Yet, I was less entranced with the novelistic treatent of Chaya than that of Asher, but perhaps this can be blamed on the differing intensities of the dramas of their growth.
There is something of Augie March in Asher, as the latter teaches himself “free style,” in Saul Bellow’s words. Bellow’s complicated characters are usually outsiders, usually Jews, male, intelligent if not intellectual, and pitted against a metropolis (“Chicago, that somber city,” says Augie March), where they must find a way to survive. Moses Herzog, another of Bellow’s heroes, begins to address assimilation this way: “The children of the race by a never-failing miracle opened their eyes on one strange world after another.”
Bellow’s protagonists (and, I repeat, they are almost entirely, and forcefully, male) were hugely celebrated in the postwar world of the 1950’s, a decade that saw an unusually large concentration of (male) Jewish novelists: Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Bellow, and more. Not surprisingly, the theme of being an outsider in a variety of strange worlds, usually urban, influences to greater and lesser degrees their fictional heroes, and whether or not these novels are overtly concerned with assimilation, the ghost of same seems to hover over their plots and patter. (Not to mention the dialogue in the early films of Woody Allen). In the decades since, the writers have changed but, America being what it is, and should be, the subject consistently surfaces.
Brown’s siblings, having landed in their own strange world of late nineteenth century Chicago, are also aware of their own miracle. they are so young they must grow into their intellectual capacities. More immediately, they must also confront the brute reality of the vast city (a half-century earlier than Augie March did as much). Even as Chaya and Asher contemplate what Bellow called “the absurdity of hope,” they too must ponder how to survive. Having fortunately tumbled into the rooming house of one motherly Mrs. Gottlieb, they avoid tragedy, though Chaya at first can’t see far beyond a future career of rolling cigars. As for Asher, our young genius frowns on attending school, realizing he knows far more than the students he meets. But their fortunes are about to change, as Brown slowly takes her charges on a novelistic voyage to explore the vast chasm between alienation and belonging.
Saul Bellow she isn’t, quite. Brown lacks Bellow’s wit. Our Nobelist, however, could never have come up with such a fascinating and beautifully researched tale of nineteenth-century Chicago arrivistes. So when it comes to Brown’s latest, the White (or even in some cases, Grimy) City should be proud.