In the Neighborhood of True is an engaging exploration of right and wrong and hiding one’s identity, set against the backdrop of 1958 Georgia.
A powerful story of love, identity, and the price of fitting in or speaking out.– Goodreads
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.
In the Neighborhood of True is a compelling story that follows Ruth as she tries to fit in (and, in order to do that, hide her Jewish identity) after moving from New York City to Georgia. I loved the book for so many reasons!
🌸 The book starts at the end
Right off the bat, I liked that In the Neighborhood of True begins, as my English teacher would say, in media res—that is, not at the beginning. This frame for the story (which you can get a sneak peek of, as there’s an excerpt of the book later on in this post!) made the book super interesting.
🌸 Relevant and timely storyline revolving around antisemitism and hate crimes
Antisemitism is a major focus of the book, and while the story is set in 1958, many of the situations are similar to more recent examples of antisemitism, and some of the events in the book are based on things that actually happened—I’d definitely recommend reading the author’s note for more on that. In the Neighborhood of True is #OwnVoices for Jewish rep, and it’s evident that these discussions are personal and crafted with care.
The water pipes could get fixed, and the windows could get restained or whatever it was you did with stained glass. But I could never look at this place, and Judy could never look at this place, and feel unhated.
Note: quotes are from an uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the final copy.
🌸 A fresh time period for historical YA about Jewish characters
For me personally, I don’t think that before now I’d read any historical fiction with Jewish characters that wasn’t about the Holocaust—which is SUPER important to read and learn about, but it was also interesting for me to become more knowledgeable about what it might have been like to be Jewish in a different time period.
🌸 Discussion of racism and civil rights
Antisemitism is the most central as far as issues discussed in the novel, but racism, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement are touched on as well. Ruth’s synagogue and its rabbi receive hate for supporting civil rights, and these experiences and others in the book mean that Ruth’s ideas and awareness about race are growing and evolving over the course of the novel.
🌸 Subtle discussion of gender
This was a small thing, but the main character talks about how she feels that she can be a deep, powerful person and also be someone who enjoys fashion and other things that are traditionally considered shallow or feminine, which I really liked.
It’s so important that the false dichotomy of traditional femininity and feminism is subverted, so I appreciated the inclusion of this in the book. I loved this small feminist touch, and you can read a bit more about it in the author Q&A later in the post.
Mother thought my dalliance (her word) with fashion was shallow, but fashion was about art and creation and self expression. If that counted as shallow, count me in.
🌸 Important themes about hiding your identity, speaking out, and doing the right thing that tie into typical teenage struggles
While the social issues mentioned before, especially antisemitism, are central to the story, In the Neighborhood of True is fairly quiet and understated and focuses a lot on what it’s like for Ruth to try and make new friends in a very Christian town where she doesn’t know anyone and feels pressure to hide her Jewish identity.
It think that anyone who’s ever felt like they’ve had to hide a part of themselves, or even anyone who’s had to move to a new place or school, will be able to relate to Ruth. There are lots of topics in the book, like friendships, mean kids, dating, etc. that are pretty universal, especially for teens.
I also think that the author specifically did a good job of incorporating small, everyday aspects of hiding one’s religion that were obviously well thought-out, like this scene where Ruth is talking about languages with her new friend Gracie:
“Is French harder here or in New York?” Gracie asked.
I shrugged. “It’s easy in both places.” I didn’t add: “I’m good at languages—for instance, Hebrew.”
Learning to speak out and to do the right thing are also crucial to the story, and I was super happy with how the book ended in regard to those themes.
When hatred shows its face, you need to make a little ruckus.
🌸 Not a love triangle
Just as a side note, I’d like to mention that going into the book, I was expecting a love triangle based on the synopsis, but full disclosure: there isn’t really one. I personally liked that a love triangle isn’t present, as I feel that the story is stronger this way. It’s hinted at a little bit, but it’s more of a possibility than an actual “ahh, angst, I have to choose which boy to date” kinda thing.
🌸 Cool female reporter characters
I really enjoyed that Ruth’s mom is a reporter, and that Ruth wants to follow in her footsteps. Ruth’s mom was a cool character in general, which brings me to my next point…
🌸 Family relationships
As you probably know if you’re a frequent reader of my blog, I adore books that explore family relationships, even if it’s just on the side like in this one. It was really cool how Ruth’s mom always took Ruth and her sister, Nattie, to do journalist stuff with her, and how Ruth’s family members were complex even though they weren’t the main focus of the novel.
I also liked seeing Ruth’s relationships with her Southern, Christian grandparents develop, between doing fancy dressy things with her grandmother and talking about newspaper things and current events with her grandfather.
Ruth’s dad died, (don’t worry, NOT a spoiler—it happens before the book takes place.) which also adds a layer of complexity and grief the story and to the family dynamics.
As a final note about the family, I would just like to give a shout-out to Ruth’s family’s adorable-sounding dog, Frooshka!
In the Neighborhood of True is quiet but powerful, and there are so many aspects of it that I love. I honestly can’t think of a single drawback! This book deserves so much more hype, and it will definitely be going on my ‘Best of 2019’ Goodreads shelf.
Diversity Rep: Jewish main character and multiple other Jewish characters; two Black minor characters
Warnings: anti-semitism; hate crime; racism (all very intentionally challenged); sexual content
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Click here to read a Q&A with the author of In the Neighborhood of True, Susan Kaplan Carlton!
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
Click here to read the first chapter of In the Neighborhood of True!
Happy release day to In the Neighborhood of True! Thank you for reading this unusually long review—I didn’t realize this when I started writing, but it turns out I had quite a lot to say about this one. 🙂
Let me know in the comments—are you planning on reading In the Neighborhood of True? (Or have you already read it?) Do you have any recs of books with Jewish characters?