Two young Jewish immigrants run away from home to make their way in the seething, harsh tumult of 19th-century Chicago.
Life has been nothing but sorrow, boredom, and miserable hard work since Chaya-Libbe Shaderowsky's family arrived in their New World home, a farm in Wisconsin. When she realizes they are about to marry her off to the first nebbish who shows up, she hops a train. But she's got company: her 8-year-old brother, Asher, an extraordinary child with prodigal powers of language and memory, whom Chaya adores beyond all else. Arriving in Chicago penniless and clueless, the two are led to the Jewish quarter by a handsome young man named Gregory Stillman (perhaps this won't be the last we see of him). Taken in by a childless widow, Chaya finds work in a sweatshop manufacturing cigars; Asher hits the streets as a cunning shoplifter and pickpocket. Before long the child's stunning intellectual gifts lead to work as a party entertainer. The opportunity to compare the lots of the rich and poor, living at such vast extremes then as now, leads each of the Shaderowskys to a sharpened political awareness and a simmering rage which plays out with shocking results in the book's final chapters. Often praised for her prose, in her long-awaited sixth novel Brown (Half a Heart, 2000, etc.) sings as euphoniously as ever, whether she is writing about the filth and stench of the city, about the magnificence of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, or about love. "The first time Gregory kissed Chaya, it was just beside her ear, a gentle, oblique touching of his lips to the skin that astounded her by what it taught her of the connection between the distant outposts of her body, which had never before reported their existence." Among the historical flourishes is the appearance of Jane Addams—"she had the air of an aunt about her...committed to movement, [she] was not a proper noun so much as a verb"—to play an important role in their lives.
A transporting drama of class and love, steeped in period feeling, written with beauty and conviction.