Lake on Fire

Rosellen Brown. Sarabande Books, 2018. 349 pages. $17.95.

By David Madden 

Mindful of its unusual sister and brother relationship and the masterful epic scope of their lives, one may take the publication of Lake on Fire, Rosellen Brown’s sixth novel, as an occasion for recognizing her achievements over five decades. These include three collections of poems, a collection of short stories, and a play adaptation of one of the world’s most famous novels, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

Jewish family relationships in the Midwest, marriage, feminist struggles, and the Civil Rights movement are a few of the subjects and themes of her fourteen publications. Her most highly praised novels are Civil Wars, Before and After, and Half a Heart. 

And her most ambitious novel is Lake on Fire, a 349 page drama of the lives of Chaya and her younger brother Asher who flee a wretched life on a Wisconsin Farm and end up in the 1890s in the Chicago of the Gilded Age, with the cruel contrasts of the vaulted wealth of its Columbian Exposition with the city’s cesspool of poverty. One might recall the works of Theodore Dreiser had his style been more like Brown’s.

Chaya must take on the drudgery of work in a cigarette factory while Asher, a child Robin Hood, steals books and jewelry to sell to help people as poor as himself. Ways of escape from poverty is the theme of the complicated narrative of their lives. 

Their lives are so rich in characters and episodes that to describe them further risks denying the reader the involved pleasures of their unfolding. 

But as a radiant lure into the narrative, one may consider a typical passage of Rosellen Brown’s style. “The vibration that had thrummed under her feet as steadily as heart-beat had broken off for good and she was overcome with panic laced with disappointment and, another layer beneath that, a roiling anger for which she had no words.” As frequent as lyrical passages are cogent ones. “Asher came to consciousness in a single blow.” 

Mindful of the fact that her two daughters are grown now, and even though she continues to teach creative writing, she is only 79, we may expect more poems, stories, and novels from a writer as productive and prolific as Rosellen Brown.

Author most recently of Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh, David Madden (ΦBK, University of Tennessee, 1979) is at work on an innovative biography of James M. Cain, a memoir of his army troubles during the McCarthy era, and an impressionistic biography of his mother.