Off the Shelf: Alternate versions of reality

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Alternate reality, fantasy or a combination of both? Wikipedia defines fantasy as “a genre of speculative fiction involving magical elements, typically set in a fictional universe and sometimes inspired by mythology and folklore,” and alternate history as “a genre of speculative fiction of stories in which one or more historical events occur and are resolved differently than in real life.” The three young adult novels in this review don’t fall neatly into either of these genres. Real history is combined with a fantasy element in one, the next contains religious ideas that could be defined in a variety of ways and, while the third might be easily considered alternate history, it also has a mystical/religious aspect. That’s what made reading these works so interesting: the different elements add depth to the stories. 


“The City Beautiful”

The most literary – and beautifully written – of these works is “The City Beautiful” by Aden Polydoros (Inkyard Press). Without the one fantasy element, the novel could serve as an excellent example of historical fiction. That element, though, adds even more color and drama. 

Seventeen-year-old Alter Rosen lives a dull, dreary life in 1893 Chicago. He works long hours typing on a Linotype press for one of the Jewish newspapers and shares a room with four other young men. Every penny he can spare goes into a fund to bring his mother and twin sisters to the U.S. But life is difficult and Alter sometimes wonders if all the hard work is worth it. Then his roommate and friend Yaakov is murdered, although the police claim it was an accident. But the police have also ignored the recent disappearances of several other young Jewish men. When Alter helps the Chevra Kadisha prepare Yaakov’s body for burial, something odd happens. Alter sees Yaakov move and, believing he is alive, dives into the mikvah (ritual bath) to save him. But it is Yaakov’s dybbuk (spirit) that Alter saw, a dybbuk that now inhabits Alter’s body and threatens his health and sanity. The only way for Alter to rid himself of the spirit is to discover who murdered Yaakov.

Alter’s search for the killer reunites him with Frankie, a fellow Jewish immigrant, who steals and gambles for a living. The sexual attraction Alter felt for Frankie remains and complicates their relationship. But Frankie is willing to help him find the murderers, as is Raizel Ackermann, whom Alter met in an unsuccessful matchmaking attempt by a neighbor. 

While the search for the killer is filled with action and some unexpected plot twists, the best parts of the novel are those that portray immigrant life in Chicago. Polydoros writes about the hustle and bustle of the city, and the difference between the poor sections and the rich ones. He also shows how Jews were not always made welcome. As Frankie notes about the Christians who control the city, “We’ll never be equals in their eyes. They can grit their teeth and tolerate us, but they’ll never welcome us into their white cities, because ambition becomes something ugly when it has a Jewish face.... And no amount of blood, sweat, or fine tailoring is going to change that.” 

“The City Beautiful” is a powerful and moving work. While aimed at a YA audience, adult fantasy lovers will also enjoy it. It’s perfect for book clubs that discuss fantasy, and would make a terrific choice for those that include teenager and adult members. 


“The Unfinished Corner”

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” explains why some graphic novels are so successful, particularly when dealing with fantasy. Why use 1,000 words to describe an otherworldly character or part of the universe when you can draw it? That’s true for the fun and exciting “The Unfinished Corner” written by Dani Coleman and illustrated by Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz (Wonderbound). It’s filled with lore from Jewish folktales, but also serves as an engaging look at Jewish identity in contemporary times.

The winners of an art contest at a Jewish day school are awarded a trip to Washington, DC. What the four students don’t realize is the rabbi accompanying them is really an angel and their bus an eagle that is flying them to an unfinished corner of God’s universe, which serves as the home of monsters and demons. The rabbi/angel wants 12-year-old Miriam to use her artistic skills to finish that corner of the world. But Miriam is more worried about her upcoming bat mitzvah and whether or not she wants to be Jewish in a world where it doesn’t feel safe to be Jewish. Two of the students – Avi and David – try to help, but are dealing with their own issues. The fourth, Judith, who is rude and obnoxious, creates a good counterpoint and another way of viewing the world. 

“The Unfinished Corner” is filled with fast-paced action, helped by the wonderful drawings, which add an extra dimension to the book. The many Jewish characters drawn from legend – from Lilith to the golem of Prague – work really well, even for those who are unfamiliar with them. The work does discuss serious issues, but the lessons being taught are easy to swallow because readers will be too busy enjoying the plot. Those who love fantasy and graphic novels will definitely want a copy of “The Unfinished Corner.” 

“The Papercutter”

Some alternative histories are really commentaries on contemporary times. That’s certainly true of “The Papercutter: Book 1 of The Split Series” by Cindy Rizzo (Bella Books). After a contested election, the United States has split into two countries: The God Fearing States (known as GFS) and the United Progressive Regions (called the UPR). Orthodox Jews were encouraged by their rabbis to move to the GFS since religion is frowned on in the UPR, as is Zionism. But times are changing and it’s becoming dangerous to be Jewish in the GFS.

Although the relationship between the two countries is uneasy, they have instituted an e-mail pen pal program. That’s where gay Jeffrey Schwartz from the GFS meets Dani Fine, a queer girl living in the UPR. But neither can be open about their identity in their e-mails, which are periodically screened. However, Jeffery wants Dani to know what is happening in the GFS and turns to his friend Judith Braverman, who makes Jewish papercuts, to hide codes in the papercuts that he can e-mail to Dani. Judith also has another talent: she can see people’s souls and know if they are good or evil. As life for the Jews get worse in the GFS, that talent comes in handy.

The prose of “The Papercutter” is plain and not terribly exciting, but the plot is excellent. Those who dislike long descriptions will be happy with Rizzo’s work, which focuses on dialogue and action. Although there are two more books in the trilogy, this one ends on a satisfying note, although still leaving readers curious to see how the story is ultimately resolved.