The City Beautiful
By Aden Polydoros
Genre: Historical Fiction/Horror
QUILTBAG Main Character: Yes
QUILTBAG Minor Character: Yes
Main Character of Color: No
Bechdel Test: Yes
Summary: Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.
But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows.
Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.
Let’s Get A Little Deep:
How many of y’all read the author’s notes at the end of a novel? I don’t know that I’ve ever considered how often I read those notes, but I know that there aren’t a whole lot of them that connected with me in any meaningful way. I might read them and then quickly forget them, or read them and find that they do not add to my understanding of the story or its content. The same cannot be said of The City Beautiful, which contains a note from the author that will stick with me forever. I’ll talk more about that note in a moment, but first let me dive deeper into what this book is about.
Aden Polydoros tells a haunting story in The City Beautiful, literally and figuratively. In it, Alter traverses a city that is both celebrating its beauty and sweeping up its unwanted citizens into the lowest depths of the city. Chicago at the heart of the World’s Fair might seem glamorous, but Alter knows it will eat you up if you let it. He also knows that stepping outside the safety of Maxwell Street, the Jewish neighborhood of the city, can only lead to danger. Dangers he will soon have to face if he wants justice for his dead friend and to free himself of said friend’s dybbuk. The horrors that Alter faces are both of this world and from beyond it, and he’ll have to channel both to free himself.
What blew me away about this book was how well it has interwoven Jewish culture and history while subverting harmful and all too familiar tropes. Remember I said that Polydoros’s author’s note is one that will stick with me? This is due to what he mentions in the very first paragraph, about how he grew up reading stories of passive Jews during the Holocuast. This understandably troubled Polydoros who, after witnessing recently horrible and deadly acts of anti-semitism in America, decided he could change the narrative.
Alter is not a passive player in what is occurring in his city, the horrors that are being seen by his people. He knows the terrible insidiousness that is anti-semetic attitudes, they are what brought him out of his homeland in the first place. What makes The City Beautiful work is that it shows how beautiful and rich the Jewish culture is while showing that Jewish people are not complicit in their own suffering. We are not sheeps who will walk themselves to slaughter, but people with minds and brains and fists who can and will protect their communities.
While this novel is unapologetically and uniquely Jewish, it easily resonates with so many marginalized people. The world is not the sleek, whitewashed walls of the World’s Fair, or at least not entirely. The City Beautiful asks what you are willing to do to protect your community, and it tells you not to believe that you don’t have value, even when those in power take as much of you as they can. It is a timely book, even though it is historical. It is exactly the kind of book I would have wanted growing up as a young queer Jewish person.
The City Beautiful is out this October and the author has a Preorder Campaign going on right now. I would take full advantage of that campaign because this is the kind of book you’ll come back to again and again.
Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love The City Beautiful? Leave a comment telling me your favorite obscure history moment. You can also find me on Instagram @booked.with.grace and on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@ynbushehri) for editing my posts.