Title: The City Beautiful
Author: Aden Polydoros
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Length: 330 Pages
Category: Young Adult, Gaslamp Fantasy, Paranormal, Murder Mystery
Rating: 5 Stars
At a Glance: The City Beautiful is exquisite in its storytelling, its characterizations, and the ways in which Aden Polydoros grounds his readers in the time and place, giving readers the opportunity to think about and feel for the history as it unfolded and to admire the courage of those who came before us in search of an ideal that was crafted for some but not for others.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: 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.
Review: “I hated the idea that to be considered a worthy American, I had to hack away parts of myself to become a more acceptable Jew, an invisible one. And I hated that in spite of my resentment, a part of me deeply wanted to anyway.”
The American Dream was little more than an illusion for so many European immigrants who came to these shores in the late 19th century, in search of a better life. Fleeing religious persecution, famine, economic hardships, so many left their homes and families behind to make the long journey across the Atlantic with the hope of finding prosperity and attaining the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised by the founders. What so many discovered instead was more discrimination, hate, poverty, and exploitation (and the more things change, the more they stay the same). Author Aden Polydoros writes in the final chapter of this brilliant and beautiful book: “. . . don’t be deceived, those walls aren’t polished marble, they’re particle-board, sawdust, and plaster, colored white with lead.” His protagonist, Alter Rosen, was speaking of what remained of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair at the time, but it served as a fitting metaphor for the façade of the goldene medina—the golden land—and the reality of what lied beneath.
The City Beautiful is part gaslamp fantasy and part murder mystery with strong historical roots based in the factual—what life was like for Jewish immigrants living in the ghetto tenements on Maxwell Street in Chicago; workers rebelling against long hours, dangerous—sometimes deadly—working conditions, for so little pay; and the ways in which Alter struggled between assimilation and remaining true to his faith. Alter wears his sidelocks short and tucked behind his ears, his tzitzis under his shirt and waistcoat and tucked into his pants, and he wears a cap rather than a yarmulke in public more often than not to avoid the slurs he’s so familiar with. And there was, in fact, a serial killer who terrorized the Chicago World’s Fair, known as this country’s first serial murderer, a man named H.H. Holmes, dubbed the American Ripper. The killer in this novel, however, is preying solely upon young Jewish men for reasons that chilled me to the bone when his motive was revealed.
Alter is a young man whose responsibilities and burdens are numerous. At seventeen, he’s working to send every penny he doesn’t need to live on back to Romania to his mother and two sisters so they, too, can make the trip to America. His own journey to Chicago was not without its share of strife and heartbreak, and Polydoros renders it tenderly into who Alter has become in the years since he arrived, alone and frightened. Fate, it would seem, brought Frankie Portnoy into Alter’s orbit, giving him a place to stay, a family of sorts, and, more importantly, a means of earning money, even if it wasn’t what one would call honest work. Alter breaking away from a life of petty crime was a turning point where he wagered that he could be faithful to himself and his religion, be a “good mensch”, find gainful employment, and still earn enough money to pay for his family’s passage to America.
Human remains begin to appear in various locations, with more boys missing, which is terrifying to say the least, but it hits home in a profoundly personal way when one of Alter’s roommates, Yakov Kogan, a boy Alter had secretly fallen in love with, is found drowned in a lake at the Fair. The police leap to the conclusion of accident (or suicide), thanks to a lack of interest and because it was the easy explanation, but Alter has reason to believe otherwise after he attends Yakov’s body in the traditional ritual to prepare him for burial. What happens when Yakov is lowered into the mikveh is intense, sharply written, and sends Alter on a course of discovery that puts him on a path straight into danger and death. It also introduces the paranormal/fantasy element to the story, which was not only touching and poignant but frightening as well. That Alter and Frankie begin to grow close again while searching for Yakov’s killer introduces a tenderness to the story that was moving and welcome, but not at all easy.
The City Beautiful is exquisite in its storytelling, its characterizations, and the ways in which Aden Polydoros grounds his readers in the time and place, the sights and sounds and smells, and gives us the opportunity to think about and feel for the history as it unfolded and to admire the courage of those who came before us in search of an ideal that was crafted for some but not for others.
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