Two historical YA fictions set in America when the 19th century was set in the 20th. One boy haunted by ghostly visions of a traumatic past and another forced to live in captivity because of his magical transport powers. Two thieves and the scoundrels who love them, but fear that they are not worthy.
September releases The Beautiful City and Before we disappear both feature twisted storylines full of crime, scams, conspiracies, and queer romance.
The Beautiful City, by Aden Polydoros, introduces us to Alter Rosen, a Jewish immigrant from Romania who landed alone in America and traveled to the city of Chicago. He works hard to try to pay the way for his mother and sisters to join him in America, keeps his head down and tries not to think about how much he is in love with his unconscious roommate, Yakov. But when Yakov is found dead after a clandestine meeting on the grounds of the World’s Fair in Chicago, Alter barely has time to heal his broken heart before he begins to have strange visions. It soon becomes clear that he is haunted by the ghost of Yakov – a dibbouk.
Two cities, two stories – many parallels
Yakov is not the only Jewish boy to have disappeared in Chicago. Indeed, it seems there is a killer roaming the town, looking for boys like Alter and his friends. Alter realizes that the only way to break free from Yakov’s vengeful ghost is to find the killer and stop him for good. But in order to do that, Alter will have to step away from his quiet, responsible life and delve into Chicago’s underworld – which means tracking down a thief and villain named Frankie who Alter worked for early in his struggle to get away with it. go out to America. But Alter left Frankie’s gang for a reason, and it wasn’t just because his conscience weighed on him.
by Shaun David Hutchinson Before we disappear starts with a lighter premise: Jack is a pickpocket and a magician’s assistant. He works for The Enchantress, a performing magician who has stunned audiences across Europe with his illusions – while blinding them with his crook ploys. When they have to flee Paris after recklessly stealing another magician’s trick, she announces that their next stop is America, where she was engaged to headline Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exhibit. When they get to Seattle, it’s like a place Jack might want to stay for a while. But then a mysterious new wizard arrives and begins robbing their audience with an impossible trick – one that even Jack can’t seem to figure out.
And even more mysterious is the assistant of this new magician, a boy called Wilhelm. The more Jack learns about him, the clearer it becomes that the reason he can’t figure out the trick may be because it’s not really a trick at all, and Wilhelm is sort of performing actual magic. . And worst of all, he may not be a wizard’s assistant by choice, but he’s being held captive by a crook far more malicious than Jack can even imagine. But when everyone’s doing a scam, who can you really trust?
These books are similar, but they don’t seem repetitive
It’s pretty obvious that these two books have a lot in common. The settings are surprisingly similar, although Chicago in the 1880s feels a lot more gritty than Seattle in 1908. The love stories run parallel, as all the characters struggle with their inner demons and checkered pasts and work to believe that. they are, in fact, adorable. And both stories are touched by both magic and monsters as the characters work together to use their power to unmask terrible villains. But that doesn’t mean that these two books seem repetitive. In fact, they make great companion reads because they approach their themes with very different voices.
The Beautiful City has darkness at its heart, as its characters struggle to survive amid anti-Semitism, horrific work standards, and prejudice. Each of them have scars and trauma that feel very real, and the supernatural element of the dibbouk never makes it look like fantasy rather than historical fiction. Its tone is always more serious, its details rich in specificity and research, and its joys tinged with pain. It’s not a happy tale, but it makes it all the more moving.
Before we disappear looks a lot more like a fun fantasy with its magic show hijinks and very deliberate sidestepping the historical reality of the difficulties queer people face in historical settings. Even though the characters face dangers and difficulties, it still seems inevitable that things will turn out well in the end when we achieve prestige and fulfillment.
When read together, they offer a true spread of the insight, contemplative reflections, intense feelings, and drama that historic YA has to offer.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Plume and Quire.