More than 20 years ago, when Rosellen Brown moved into a Hyde Park high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan, she kept a notebook on her windowsill. “I was so enthralled by the lake, I recorded the changes that took place every 15 minutes,” says the Philadelphia native. At that point in her life, she had already published nine books, mostly fiction and poetry set in present-day New England. But after arriving in Chicago, her obsession with the lakeshore inspired her to try something completely different — a novel that takes place during the 1893 world’s fair.
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. “The Fair, blazing up beside the lake, was the closest she’d ever come to imagining a heaven,” Brown writes of her heroine, who finds work in a cigar factory near Maxwell Street, while her little brother picks pockets and steals books. The novel is full of rich historical details, from tenement houses on the Near West Side to the mansions of Prairie Avenue. Among other real-life figures, Jane Addams and Bertha Palmer appear, but the fairgrounds steal the show. “I don’t think we can reconstruct the wonder that this place had for people who were seeing electricity for the first time,” Brown says.
Now 79, still in Hyde Park and a creative-writing professor at the School of the Art Institute, Brown says none of her manuscripts had ever been rejected — until this one. “An editor told me, ‘This is not what you do! Give me what you’ve done before.’ ” So instead of shopping the novel around New York, she sent it to Sarabande Books, a small but well-respected press in Kentucky.
“You wanna hear something funny? Costco ordered 1,000 copies for their Chicago stores.” She laughs. “They’ll probably sell them in packages of 10.”