An intense, familiar, heart breaking novel about choice, morality, and family, In the Neighborhood of True is the story of Ruth, a young teen girl who is faced with a complex web of action, feeling, racism, and anti-Semitism when she and her family move to 1950’s Atlanta after the death of her father.
What is justice, right or wrong, and who is she to decide whether to stand up? Reading Ruth’s story as she figures out who she is, what her strength is and what she will do with it, is a mighty important tale from Susan Kaplan Carlton. I want to thank Brittani Hilles from Algonquin Books & Algonquin Young Readers for reaching out to me & giving me the chance to review this book.
Published: 9 April 2019
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Category: Historical Fiction/Young Adult
A powerful story of love, identity, and the price of fitting in or speaking out.
After her father’s death, Ruth Robb and her family transplant themselves in the summer of 1958 from New York City to Atlanta—the land of debutantes, sweet tea, and the Ku Klux Klan. In her new hometown, Ruth quickly figures out she can be Jewish or she can be popular, but she can’t be both. Eager to fit in with the blond girls in the “pastel posse,” Ruth decides to hide her religion. Before she knows it, she is falling for the handsome and charming Davis and sipping Cokes with him and his friends at the all-white, all-Christian Club.
Does it matter that Ruth’s mother makes her attend services at the local synagogue every week? Not as long as nobody outside her family knows the truth. At temple Ruth meets Max, who is serious and intense about the fight for social justice, and now she is caught between two worlds, two religions, and two boys. But when a violent hate crime brings the different parts of Ruth’s life into sharp conflict, she will have to choose between all she’s come to love about her new life and standing up for what she believes.
Rating: 4 Stars
CW: underage drinking, anti-Semitism
Taking place in 1959, there was a lot of particularly time period sentiments that were blood boiling in their existence. From Mr. Hank (Ruth’s grandfather) brushing aside his daughter, Ruth’s Mother, desire & passion regarding covering important news stories because his paper “needs men to hop on those stories”, to the decorum rules that Ruth and her peers are having drummed into them, there a quite a few occurrences of tongue biting in the reading of this book. These pale next to the religious bigotry that begin in vocal asides and snowball into horrible actions as the story continues.
A terrifying thought is that there are echoes of sexist & religiously intolerant practices, if not worse ones, in our current atmosphere. It was saddening to read about the past & realize what’s changed and what we only think has. From larger scale things to the micro acts throughout, Carlton took care to craft a story that didn’t neglect the layers of life.
Ruth, the main character and whose lense everything is filtered through, is a complicated girl. She is a teenager going through complex emotions that would be hard enough at any time in history but especially so given the events, historical and personal, going on around her.
As the daughter of a Jewish father and a mother who converted from Christianity, there’s a pull as to what she should be loyal to. When her family, after the death of her father, moves from New York City to her mother’s hometown of Atlanta and into the guest home of her grandparents, there’s an entire atmosphere of anti-Semitism to contend with. Ruth wants to belong, a reasonable thing, but what will that cost?
There are choices she has to make along the way that show what she may or may not be betraying in regards to her own moral compass, consciously or not, as well as what she’s not really seeing going on around her (i.e. hearing about integration protests on the radio but dismissing them when she realizes the report doesn’t contain any names she recognizes).
Carlton’s characterization strength extends to setting. From details regarding fashion to the way Mr. Hank has a wireless set up to receive news reports in his home, the 1950’s were exquisitely portrayed on the page. Once sunken into the story, admittedly as explained above there were the difficult choices and topics to contend with, but as well written as the book was, it was one that on multiple sides made it one that I didn’t want to put down.
General Q&A With the Author
1. How did you write TRUE? All at once or did you outline the story?
I’m not an outliner, and it took me a long time (a year, if I’m being honest) to find the beating heart of this book. Once I figured out what the story was about—falling so in love with a boy, or a place, that you risk losing yourself…and learning to stand up for what you believe in even when it’s hard and heart-breaking—I wrote straight through.
2. What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters? Which of your characters do you most identify with, and why?
I love my main character Ruth. She’s shallow and she knows it (obsessed with fashion and frippery and the magazine Mademoiselle) but she’s discovering that she also runs deep. A couple of years ago, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a great essay for ELLE defending why smart women can love fashion. And I love that (and her). We are all so much more than one thing.
3. What gave you the idea for TRUE?
The roots of the story are deeply personal. Our family had just moved to Atlanta and joined a synagogue. We were still new to town when our youngest daughter announced she’d learned that the classroom she spent every Sunday morning in had been the site of a bombing 50 years before. That stayed with me—the idea that the walls that held these kids had once been blown apart. In the Neighborhood of True is a response to that bombing in 1958, retribution for the rabbi’s involvement in civil rights. The book is horrifying timely in a way I never could have imagined. You can draw a line from Atlanta in 1958 ….to Charlottesville in 2017….to Pittsburgh in 2018…to Christchurch two months ago.
So, there’s that important seed of the story. And then, as I was writing Ruth and her various lies of omission about her religion, I remembered my college boyfriend asking me to not tell his grandfather that I was Jewish…he just wanted the man to like me, he said. And, unbelievably, I agreed. That’s the question I found myself puzzling over—why was I so quick to hide who I was for this boy I loved?
4. Do you have a favourite scene, quote, or moment from TRUE?
It takes my main character, Ruth, a long time to find her voice in Atlanta, circa 1958. At first she’s so seduced by the dresses and the debutante parties (and a dimpled boy) that she keeps quiet about who she is.
On Ruth’s first official date with Davis, she’s trying to figure out how much of herself to reveal. I like this scene between them after seeing the movie Vertigo.
“I like Hitchcock,” I said.
“Me too. Bet you like one of the Janes—Eyre or Austen.”
“Please. Give me some credit. I like . . . I love . . . Truman Capote.” Actually, Sara liked Truman Capote. But last year, Mademoiselle had published one of his short stories, so that was something.
“I should read him then.”
The thought of Davis doing something because I loved it was sort of exhilarating. “I don’t really love him,” I said, wanting to tell the truth when I could. “I just read one story of his about Christmas, and it was depressing as dirt.”
“Ah, so in the neighborhood of true.” Davis one-dimpled me. “That’s what we say when something’s close enough.”
5. If you could tell your younger writing self-anything, what would it be?
I would tell my younger self not to be so judge-y. My first drafts are a hot mess. I wonder a thousand times an hour if there’s anything of worth on the page. And I’m kind of slow. I have to write all the way to the end to figure out what I’m trying to say. But then the revision starts, and I cut all the dreck, and things start looking up.
6. What is on your current TBR pile?
Sooooo many books, but here are my top five!
- White Rose by Kip Wilson (a gorgeous novel in verse about Sophie Scholl and a nonviolent resistance group that challenged the Nazis)
- Internment by Samira Ahmed (every single writer I respect has been raving about this novel set in the near-future with internment camps for Muslim-Americans)
- Bright Burning Stars by AK Small (ballet and Paris—yes, please)
- The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali (this historical fiction about first loves and fate is technically an adult read but easily crosses to YA – set in both 1950s Tehran and present-day Boston)
- It’s a Whole Spiel edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (cannot wait for this anthology with Jewish characters who are diverse in sexuality, race, and level of observance)
7. Do you write to music? If so, what artist were you listening to while writing TRUE?
The opening lines of the song 24 Frames by Jason Isbell made me think of Ruth: “This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing/And this is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she/Gave to you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing.”
In a more vintage mood, I also made a Spotify playlist for TRUE – songs that Ruth (and Gracie and Davis) would have listened to and loved….and it really inspired me as I was trying to imagine the twists and turns, political and otherwise, of 1958
Great Balls of Fire — Jerry Lee Lewis
Sh-Boom — The Crew Cuts
Love me Tender — Elvis Presley
At the Hop — Danny and the Juniors
Wake Up Little Susie —The Everly Brothers
Blue Suede Shoes — Carl Perkins/Elvis Presley
In the Still of the Light — Five Satins
St. Thomas — Sonny Rollins
Rock Around the Clock — Bill Haley and His Comets
Tutti Fruitti — Little Richard
That’ll Be the Day — The Crickets
I Walk the Line — Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Twos
Why Do Fools Fall in Love — Teenagers
You Send Me — Sam Cooke
About the Author
Susan Kaplan Carlton currently teaches writing at Boston University. She is the author of the YA novels Love & Haight and Lobsterland. Her writing has also appeared in Self, Elle, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She lived for a time with her family in Atlanta, where her daughters learned the finer points of etiquette from a little pink book and the power of social justice from their synagogue.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes included are from an advanced reader copy and may not reflect the finalized copy.
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