By – January 30, 2022

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 is the author of Avi Can­tor Has Six Months to Live (Book Smug­glers, 2017), a Jew­ish fairy­tale with a trans boy pro­tag­o­nist. A 2018 Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Fel­low, Sacha has also pub­lished with Fore­shad­ow YA (“Epis­to­lary”, 2019) and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el. Sacha can be found @mosslamb on Twitter.

Discussion Questions

In 1893 Chica­go, the World’s Columbian Expo­si­tion shows off a glit­ter­ing nar­ra­tive of civ­i­liza­tion and progress, while in the immi­grant neigh­bor­hoods young Jew­ish boys start to go miss­ing. Alter Rosen wants to keep his head down and pro­tect his dan­ger­ous secrets, but when his room­mate Yakov turns up dead and then returns as a dyb­buk des­per­ate for revenge, Alter must face his past and his fears to uncov­er the killer before it’s too late.

This goth­ic thriller stands out for its dark­ly poet­ic scenes of both the nat­ur­al and super­nat­ur­al hor­rors of the Gild­ed Age set­ting, and for how Poly­doros express­es queer­ness in Jew­ish terms, allow­ing Alter and love inter­est Frankie to inter­pret their own desires in ways that read plau­si­bly for tra­di­tion­al­ly edu­cat­ed Jews. That Alter is both gay and reli­gious­ly obser­vant is par­tic­u­lar­ly notable, espe­cial­ly in a his­toric set­ting. The City Beau­ti­ful is an excit­ing debut whose unique per­spec­tive broad­ens the nar­ra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of the famil­iar late-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry immi­grant story.