By Robin Jacobson.
As the poet Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” The magic of historical novels is their power to transport us to times long gone. Want to time travel to American cities of yesteryear? Try these captivating new historical novels; both illuminate the antecedents of today’s social justice struggles: The Lake on Fire by Rosellen Brown (set in 1890s Chicago) and Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman (a murder mystery in 1960s Baltimore). Both books are in our library.
Determined to escape an arranged marriage, 18-year-old Chaya Shaderowsky runs away from her family and community of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants struggling to subsist on a failing farm in rural Wisconsin. Chaya’s devoted eight-year-old brother, Asher, insists on accompanying her, and the two board a train for Chicago. Lake on Fire richly evokes the sights and sounds of Gilded Age Chicago, a city of both great wealth and squalid poverty.
Chaya finds work in a cigar-making sweatshop and Asher, unwilling to sit docilely in school, roams the streets pickpocketing the rich to give to the poor, modeling himself after Robin Hood. Like other Chicagoans, Chaya and Asher are enthralled by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, a stunning “White City” full of modern marvels on the shores of Lake Michigan. Conflict develops when Chaya is romanced by a wealthy (albeit socialist-leaning) gentleman while Asher befriends laborers left unemployed and destitute after the grand fair closes.
In October 1965, just before her 37th birthday, Maddie Schwartz suddenly snaps. Comfortably settled in the Jewish enclave of Pikesville, outside of Baltimore, Maddie has been married to Milton, a successful lawyer, for 18 years, and they are the parents of a teenage son. One night Milton unexpectedly brings his new tennis pal, Wally home for dinner. It turns out Wally was once Maddie’s high school prom date. This chance encounter reminds Maddie of her teenage aspirations, long dormant, to lead a creative and adventurous life, something beyond being a Jewish homemaker. Before the evening ends, Maddie inwardly resolves to leave her marriage.
In short order, Maggie is living in a sketchy neighborhood in Baltimore, working at a low-level job at a city newspaper, and hoping to become a bona fide reporter, despite limited promotional opportunities for women. Confident of her abilities, Maddie labors overtime to investigate two puzzling murder cases. In one case, Tessie Fine, an 11-year-old Jewish girl, appears to have been killed in a pet store, and in the other case, a decomposing body in a park fountain is identified as the enigmatic Cleo Sherwood, an African American bar waitress. Both cases are based on actual murders that occurred in Baltimore in the 1960s.
Lippman structures the book so that it is partly narrated by Sherwood, casting light on her experience as an African American woman. Race is also central to Maddie’s secret love affair with Ferdie, a black policeman who dreams of someday being promoted to detective. In the meantime, Ferdie, like other black policemen, is prohibited from even driving a patrol car. Nor can Maddie and Ferdie openly date; their relationship is confined to Maddie’s apartment. Their only public outing is to an Orioles game, where they pretend to be strangers who just happened to wind up sitting next to each other.
Lippman is a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and Lady in the Lake is a salute to old-school journalists. It is also a tantalizing whodunit and, like Lake on Fire, a window into a past era of American history.