Aden Polydoros’s gothic thriller is a tale of love and vengeance set in the Jewish neighborhoods of 1893 Chicago, where the glitz and glamor of the World’s Columbian Exhibition, just around the corner, might as well belong to another world. Alter Rosen is still grieving his father’s death on their ocean passage from Europe as he works to earn money for tickets to bring over the rest of his family. He wants to keep out of trouble, but when his mysterious roommate, Yakov, turns up murdered, Alter becomes possessed by his dybbuk and must reconnect with Frankie, a friend from the past, in order to solve the murder before Yakov’s need for revenge burns his soul from the inside out.
Each of the three young men at the center of the novel, Alter, Yakov, and Frankie, is hiding secrets from his past. Alter is traumatized over his father’s death and burial at sea, but also afraid that his desire for other men will be discovered. Frankie takes a different approach to his sexuality, interpreting bits of his traditional Talmudic education in a way that highlights the homoerotic possibility of chavruta study — but despite his confidence, he hides memories of abuse. Yakov’s life and afterlife are both consumed by the need for revenge, the possibility of happiness in his life extinguished in a recurrent image of a field of sunflowers burned to the ground.
The City Beautiful stands out as a contribution to Jewish fantasy, a growing but still fairly small genre in children’s literature (forthcoming releases by Rebecca Podos and others promise to expand it further). It is exciting to see a story that draws from the deep well of Jewish folklore for a dark, supernatural twist on the historical mystery plot. The main cast represents a spectrum of observance that is tied to both how long they have been in America and to their geographic origins in Eastern Europe. Alter is one of few young adult protagonists to wear tzitzit, while Frankie is described as a Litvak whose Yeshiva education was of a more “modern” type, and he is more willing to assimilate in certain ways than Alter.
By affirming both the validity of Alter’s Jewish observance and the life-affirming possibility of queer self-acceptance, Polydoros has rejected the assumption that “traditional” or observant religion need to be queer-exclusive. This an incredibly gratifying statement for the queer reader who finds solace, as Alter does, in traditional ritual. It is especially pleasing to see in literature for teens, who may struggle to reconcile the expectations of queer non-religious and straight religious community members. Setting such a story in the 1890s, additionally, illuminates the truth that there have always been queer individuals in our communities, and gay characters have a place in the immigrant fairy-tale that is so central to American Jewish literature. The combination of all these elements makes The City Beautiful a truly exciting debut.
Sacha Lamb (they/them) is the author of When The Angels Left The Old Country, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, Sydney Taylor Award Winner, and Printz Honor book. Their next novel is expected in fall 2024. Sacha can be found online at sachalamb.wordpress.com.