In the Neighborhood of True is one of those books that is so good and means so much to me that I don’t exactly know how to write out my feelings in a way that will make sense. It is exactly the book I needed at this moment. The events of this book could easily happen today which is why I think it affected me so much. But before I get ahead of myself, I want to say that Susan Kaplan Carlton wrote a story that I expect to treasure for the rest of my life. I think I’ve said this before but I had very few books with Jewish characters in them growing up. It’s probably why I read The Diary of Anne Frank so many times. It was incredibly refreshing to find a character as wonderful (and as flawed) as Ruth and to get to explore the life of a teenage girl struggling with how much of herself to share with the people around her. Let’s get to the review!
In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Genre: Historical Fiction/YA
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.
With the death of her father, Ruth Robb and her family must move to Atlanta, Georgia. Her mother is originally from there but was able to get away to New York City, ended up converting to Judaism, and marrying the man that would be Ruth’s father.
But being Jewish in 1950s Georgia is not as easy as New York Cuty, so when Ruth starts to make friends and catches the eye of Davis, one of the most popular guys in town, she leaves that part out. She wants to fit in and with the help of her grandmother, she does just that.
But Ruth’s mother has other ideas. She went through the whole debutante thing when she was growing up and doesn’t want Ruth to get too hung up on it. So she tells Ruth that she can hang out with her friends and do her debutante duties as long as she goes to synagogue with Nattie (her younger sister) and her every week. Ruth reluctantly agrees but hopes that no one spots her there.
Little does she know that she will meet people there, including a boy named Max, who will change her life and her views in ways that her debutante friends and Davis never could.
Ruth travels between her debutante friends and her time at synagogue pretty effortlessly. But when the synagogue is bombed, Ruth’s life is turned upside down and as she starts to examine her relationships and things she has witnessed, she comes to put the pieces together about who could have done such a hateful thing.
But will she cut herself off from her new life by telling the truth or will she continue to let people believe what they want to believe and stay silent?
I have to say that I was a little worried about this book going in. I was worried I was going to get frustrated with Ruth hiding who she is. Luckily, that wasn’t the case. She does hide that she is Jewish for most of the book but that doesn’t mean she lets others push her around or that she doesn’t challenge people when she thinks they are doing something wrong.
She is a loyal sister and daughter and despite her worry that she’ll be found out, she never feels ashamed for going to synagogue or for being who she is. Her friends believe what they want to believe about her and she lets them because its easier. But when the time comes for the not so easy decisions and the hard truth, she doesn’t stand by when she can ensure justice takes place.
Ruth is a perfect main character in that she is flawed but does everything she can to do right. And her development was a joy to experience. I also fell completely in love with her sister, Nattie. She cute as hell, helps Nattie learn the rules of debutante etiquette, and will not get out of a swimming pool if she doesn’t have to. And their mother is a badass in her own right. She writes for her father’s newspaper and will go after any story no matter how small. She wants Ruth and Nattie to be who they are and not what the world tells them they should be.
I also loved Ruth’s friends too, especially Gracie and Thurston-Anne. They seemed to genuinely like her and once the shit hits the fan, still seem to be interested in some kind of friendship. They are truly just teenage girls looking for people to connect with. They didn’t seem to have an agenda.
Now, if we’re talking about Claudia…well, that’s a whole different story. She’s got all kinds of agendas and they include whatever will make her the Magnolia Queen. Claudia is quite the mean girl but in a ‘you love to hate her’ kind of way. She is mean as hell but at least she doesn’t try to hide it behind a sweet facade.
Then there is Davis and Max. I get the appeal of Davis. I get why Ruth is attracted to him but as soon as Max was introduced, I was mentally shoving Ruth over to him. He’s not the best looking and he’s not the popular football player, but he’s smart, Ruth feels completely comfortable in his presence (very important!), and he cares about the issues affecting the community. And while Ruth doesn’t immediately see his appeal, she slowly realizes that he might be more than she originally thought.
And let me get one thing straight because I know what you’re thinking! There is no love triangle! Ruth is with one boy for most of the book and that only changes near the end. Don’t worry love triangle haters, you will love this book!
There is also Fontaine aka Ruth’s grandmother. I would characterize her as a true southern belle. She teaches Ruth about the ins and outs of the debutante (or pre-debutante) world. The hair, the dresses, the shoes, the makeup, and most importantly, how to behave. But she definitely wishes the “Jewish thing” would go away. She is a woman who is trying to do what she thinks is best for the ones she loves but some of the things she says…yikes. At the beginning of the book, she pretty much implies that it’s great that Ruth doesn’t look “too Jewish.”
I get it. She wants Ruth to fit in but damn! Living in a conservative Christian town, I have thought the same thing about myself. But me, a Jewish girl, thinking that is completely different than a Christian lady saying that to her Jewish granddaughter. Like I said…yikes.
The bombing of the synagogue occurs near the end of the book and is absolutely heartbreaking. While this book definitely has its light moments, it also has moments that will make you feel like your heart is being torn out of your chest. I went into reading this knowing I was going to cry. You don’t go into a book about 1950s Georgia and think it’s not going to have some tragedy in it. But the people affected by the tragedy come together and try to make something good come of it.
In terms of trigger warnings, I would say watch out for racism (the n word is used at least once), antisemitism, and hate crimes. If you have a specific trigger your worried about, you can always message me and I’ll let you know.
In the Neighborhood of True is a book that I think about at least a couple of times a week since I reading it. I am SO GLAD that more books are coming out with Jewish representation AND not just books that take place during the Holocaust. Yes, we all have a responsibility to remember what happened but that is not the end all and be all of the Jewish story. Stories like this and so many other books out right now or coming out soon. (omg so much Jewish rep) are just as valid.
We need stories of romance and fun and friendships and fashion right along with the ones of struggle and death and hardship. This book gives us both. If there was any doubt, I am giving In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton 5 out of 5 stars. I cannot wait to reread it. I really hope you get a copy and enjoy it too.
In the Neighborhood of True comes out April 9, 2019
Thank you to NetGalley and Algonquin Young Readers for the free eARC in exchange for my honest review.
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.
Praise for In the Neighborhood of True
“The story may be set in the past, but it couldn’t be a more timely reminder that true courage comes not from fitting in, but from purposefully standing out…and that to find out who you really are, you have to first figure out what you’re not.”
—Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of A Spark of Light and Small Great Things
“Every character is memorable and complex, and the plot quickly becomes engrossing…the characters’ moral decisions are so complicated and so surprising that many people will be kept spellbound by even the tiniest detail. Riveting.”
“Carlton does an excellent job of mixing the personal with the historical here…Ruth crisply relays her conflicted feelings, the tense situations, and characters who are well shaded and occasionally surprising.”
“A gorgeous story about a teenage girl finding her voice in the face of hate, heartbreak, and injustice.”
— Nova Ren Suma, #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Room Away from the Wolves
“Susan Kaplan Carlton’s snapshot of 1958 Atlanta is both exquisite and harrowing, and I will hold it in my heart for a long time.”
—Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone and Our Year of Maybe
“You might not think a book set in 1959 could feel wildly relevant, but wow does this YA set in Atlanta that explores anti-Semitism in the south during the Civil Rights era feel incredibly on point after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.”
—Barnes & Noble Teen Blog
“While it’s not wrong to say that historical fiction can be a great genre to read when you want to take a break from current events, these books can also be a gateway to re-examining and understanding the many ways that history can repeat itself unless people make meaningful, positive change happen. Susan Kaplan Carlton’s debut, In The Neighborhood of True, is a combination of both: romantic escapism brushes against harsh truths about discrimination and violence.”
When Susan Kaplan Carlton began to write In the Neighborhood of True (publication date: April 9, 2019; $17.95), she was inspired by historic events that had taken place in a synagogue where her family once worshipped. She never imagined that news in 2017 and 2018 would lend new relevance to the violent anti-Semitism she addresses in her YA novel. Partly inspired by the Atlanta temple bombing of 1958, In the Neighborhood of True is the thoughtful and provoking story of Ruth Robb, a young woman trying to fit in to the “in” crowd in her new hometown by hiding her Jewish heritage. Susan Kaplan Carlton’s past historical YA novels have been praised for their “believable, rich, likable characters” (Kirkus Reviews) and “important” (Booklist) topics relevant to teens’ lives. In this novel of the 50s Jim Crow South, Kaplan Carlton’s gorgeous prose invokes a time filled with sweet tea and debutante balls as well as cross burnings and hate crimes.
In the sweltering summer of 1958, Ruth Robb and her family move to Atlanta from New York City after the sudden death of her father. A fish out of water and grieving, Ruth meets the ruling “pastel posse” and their little pink book of manners. She quickly falls for the charming and popular Davis, who teaches her about football games and the Country Club, and is the perfect escort. Eager to fit in and to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a debutante, Ruth hides her Jewish heritage and her attendance at Sabbath services in a segregated Atlanta. Then a hate crime tears apart her community, and Ruth is forced to confront the prejudice head on and speak up about injustice.
Carlton’s family attended services at the Hebrew Benevolent Society, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue and a center for early civil rights advocacy, in the early 2000s. She says that watching her younger daughter volunteer “in one of the classrooms that had been bombed years before… stayed with me—the idea that the walls that held these kids had once been blown apart by white supremacists…it became really important to me to write this book about a girl who comes to do the right thing even when it’s hard and heartbreaking.”
Praised as “riveting” (Kirkus) and “wildly relevant” (Barnes & Noble Teen Blog), Carlton’s novel depicts an endearing heroine caught between two very different boys and the choice to fit in or speak out, and vividly evokes the temptation to turn a blind eye to injustice in order maintain the status quo. In the Neighborhood of True will have you immersed in its Southern summer, craving a Co-Cola by a picturesque pool with a relatable narrator, rooting for her to embrace her truth.