Two YA historical fictions set in America when the 19th century was rolling over into the 20th. One boy haunted by ghostly visions of a traumatic past and one forced to live a captive because of his magic transportive powers. Two thieves and rapscallions who love them, but fear they aren't worthy.
September releases The City Beautiful and Before We Disappear both offer up twisty plots full of crimes, cons, conspiracies, and queer romance.
The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros, introduces us to Alter Rosen, a Jewish immigrant from Romania who has landed in America alone and made his way 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 in love he is with his oblivious roommate, Yakov. But when Yakov is found dead after a clandestine meeting at the grounds of the Chicago World's Fair, Alter barely has time to nurse his broken heart before he begins having strange visions. It soon becomes clear that he is being haunted by Yakov's ghost — a dybbuk.
Two cities, two stories — several parallels
Yakov isn't the only Jewish boy who has gone missing in Chicago. Indeed, it seems that there is a killer roaming the city, on the hunt for boys like Alter and his friends. Alter realizes that the only way to free himself from Yakov's vengeful ghost is to find the killer and stop them for good. But 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 scoundrel named Frankie who Alter worked for in his early days of struggling to get by in America. But Alter left Frankie's gang for a reason, and it wasn't just because his conscious was weighing on him.
Shaun David Hutchinson's Before We Disappear begins with a lighter premise: Jack is a pickpocket and magician's assistant. He works for The Enchantress, a stage magician who has stunned audience across Europe with her illusions — while robbing them blind with her scam artist schemes. When they have to flee Paris after unwisely stealing another magician's trick, she announces that their next stop is America, where she has been engaged to headline at Seattle's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. When they arrive in Seattle, it feels like a place Jack might actually want to stay a while. But then a mysterious new magician turns up and begins stealing their audience with an impossible trick — one that even Jack can't seem to figure out.
And even more mysterious is this new magician's assistant, a boy called Wilhelm. The more Jack finds out about him, the clearer it becomes that maybe the reason he can't figure out the trick is because it isn't really a trick at all, and Wilhelm is somehow performing actual magic. And even worse, perhaps he isn't a magician's assistant by choice, but is being held captive by a con artist far, far more malicious than Jack can even imagine. But when everyone is running a con, who can you really trust?
These books are similar, but they don't feel repetitive
It's pretty obvious that these two books have a lot in common. The settings are strikingly similar, though 1880's Chicago feels a great deal more gritty than Seattle in 1908. The love stories run parallel, as all the characters wrestle with their inner demons and checkered pasts and work to believe that they are, if fact, loveable. And both stories are touched by both magic and monsters as the characters work together to use what power they have to unmask terrible villains. But that's not to say that these two books feel repetitive. In fact, they make for great companion reads as they tackle their themes with very different voices.
The City Beautiful has darkness at its heart, as its characters struggle to survive amidst antisemitism, horrific labor standards, and prejudice. Each and every one of them has scars and traumas that feel very real, and the supernatural element of the dybbuk never makes it feel like fantasy rather than historical fiction. Its tone is always more serious, its details rich with specificity and research, and its joys tinged with sorrow. This is not a cheerful tale, but that makes it all the more moving.
Before We Disappear feels much more like a fun fantasy with its magic show hijinks and its very deliberate sidestepping of the historical reality of the hardships faced by queer people in historical contexts. Even though the characters face perils and hardships, it always feels inevitable that things will turn out right in the end as we reach the prestige and the flourish.
When read together, they offer a real spread of the insight, contemplative musings, intense feelings, and drama that historical YA has to offer.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.