The Lake on Fire begins among 19th-century Jewish immigrants on a failing Wisconsin farm. Dazzled by lore of the American dream, Chaya and her strange, brilliant, young brother Asher stow away to Chicago; what they discover there, however, is a Gilded Age as empty a façade as the beautiful Columbian Exposition luring thousands to Lake Michigan’s shore.
The story ... offers one bravura sentence upon another ... Her single sentences delivering more character insight than many authors can achieve in entire scenes ... 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 ... a timeless story about why and how and at what cost we take care of one another.
Rosellen Brown’s prose shines. It is lucid, rhythmic and offers vivid descriptions of the city ... we see Brown’s ability to not only recreate late 19th century Chicago, but recreate it with beautiful sentences ... Unlike the 2004 book Devil in the White City by Eric Larson, which glorifies the craft and workmanship that went into the Columbian Exposition, this novel shows us the darker side, and in some ways, asks us to pick sides ... Questions arise about the luxuries of those who create and enjoy art while others suffer ... Like the hungry, those who yearn for justice in this world are rarely satisfied, the novel seems to tell us, but sometimes art can hold us off.
Rosellen Brown has a great ear, a great eye, a great love of the painful twists and turns that happen in a human life and the big twists and turns of American history. She lays out these gifts in The Lake on Fire, her first overtly 'historical' novel and her first novel in 18 years ... The compelling, gaudy background is the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and its electric (literally) impact on the Midwest and on America’s imagination ... The Lake on Fire is about the making of America... and within this epic story, the making of a person, Chaya Shaderowsky, rising and falling, failing and flailing and making her painful, blazingly aware way, in our America.