Earlier this summer, my oldest son was making random conversation at dinner about the foolishness of dating aphorisms, like how you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion on the first date. He asked if we could even imagine his brother, our middle child, on a date with someone who didn’t share his political leanings.


Our middle child is an actual card-carrying, pro-union democratic socialist who goes to union meetings, proudly wears his Teamster’s jacket, and listens to political podcasts all day while driving his UPS truck.


Our entire dinner conversation reminded me of the lines I had just finished reading in The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros when Alter Rosen recounts a failed date set up by the local matchmaker.


“Just last week, she had tried setting me up with Raizel Ackerman on the first floor, in a dinner that had exploded into a heated argument over anarchism. Raizel believed that society as a whole was corrupt, and that true freedom and liberty would only be achieved once the power structure was dismantled completely and capitalism abolished. I thought it was a pipe dream, and told her as much. The debate ended up with me getting a cup of lukewarm tea dumped into my lap while Raizel’s parents watched in horror.” (12)


Raizel and my son would get along nicely.


Set in Chicago in 1893, The City Beautiful follows the struggles of Alter Rosen, a 17-year-old Jewish immigrant working to survive and save enough money to bring his mother and younger sister to the United States.


But there is so much more to this historical fantasy than struggling to eat, work, and find love, because young Jewish boys are disappearing. The police don’t care because, along with anti-immigrant bias, they simply believe that the missing boys have merely left the city in search of a better life.


Until one of those bodies washes up on the shore.


Inspired by the story of H.H. Holmes, the real-life serial killer who operated during the Chicago World Fair, Polydorus weaves a tapestry of European and early American history that is a gripping and gritty exploration of the immigrant experience.  


And then there is the blending of Jewish traditions, Yiddish, and a mix of magical lore and superstition that gives The City Beautiful a reverent and eerie mystique that will haunt and humble readers to the unexplained and unknown in the world around us.


“He leaned across the table, fixing me with those riveting tawny eyes of his. ‘Tell me, Alter, how familiar are you with dybbukim?’  


Magic flowed through the winding streets of Piatra Neamt, if one were to believe the legends. I grew up on stories of holy men parting the river Bistrita, golems shaped from clay, and, of course, those possessive spirits called dybbukim.


‘Wait, don’t tell me.’ I laughed, but it came out hollow. ‘You think I’m possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk?’


‘Do you have a better explanation?’” (175)


Not a spoiler, but Alter and Raizel, despite all the harrowing experiences they have together throughout the novel, don’t end up together, but don’t get all verklempt about that. There’s plenty of beauty and magic in The City Beautiful for the matchmaker in all of us.


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Michael Méndez Guevara is a former high school journalism and English teacher who spent his time in the classroom helping students see themselves as writers and fall in love with reading through the world of young adult literature. As an educational sales consultant with Perfection Learning®, Michael works with teachers and schools on improving their literacy instruction and providing resources to help students achieve academic success. He has taught elementary school, middle school, and high school and has worked as a district level leader and served on the Texas state standards revision committee that developed the state’s current literacy standards. He is the father of three adult sons, the youngest a student at the University of Kansas—Rock Chalk! Michael is working on a professional development book for literacy educators and currently has agents reading the manuscript of his young adult novel, The Closest Thing to a Normal Life. When he's not reading, writing, or running, Michael is fully committed to watching as much Law & Order as possible.