I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton
Published by Algonquin Young Readers on April 9, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, Religion, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 320 •Format: ARC •Source: ALA
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.
I always seem to forget how much I enjoy historical fiction until I read it and remember how fascinating it is. There’s something so surreal about reading fiction that you know is often based on major real life events and being dropped into the mind of someone who is experiencing it as their reality, even if fictionally. In the Neighborhood of True had been on my radar for a while because it combined many of my favorite elements in YA, including a Southern setting and religious themes. I was also excited to pick up a book that followed a Jewish protagonist, as I can’t think of many YA novels I’ve read that feature Judaism, which is such a rich tradition with so much history and I enjoyed studying it in many of my Religious Studies classes while in college.
For a story that clocks in at just over 300 pages, In the Neighborhood of True covers a LOT of themes and social issues. First and foremost, it covers the struggle of protagonist Ruth has with her identity, of being a Jewish teenager from New York transplanted into Atlanta-n high society after the death of her father, when her mother moves them back to her hometown. While Ruth is enraptured by the South and the pastel dresses, pre-debutante balls and country clubs, she also must deal with the racism and discrimination that’s more obvious in her new home state than it was in New York, and determine where she wants to fit in among a society of socialites where she’ll never truly be able to admit her heritage and be accepted. While I didn’t always like the decisions Ruth made, I thought her struggle as a teenager in her situation was realistic and that she was at times (realistically) selfish and shallow and wanting desperately to fit in, but at her core struggled with her morals and beliefs and how they were compromised by her new social circle. This story is very much a coming of age tale that shows both the wise and selfish choices of the protagonist.
As the story is set in 1958, the racism and segregation faced by Black Atlantans cannot be ignored and I’m glad the author tackled these topics as well as the oppression and discrimination against Jewish citizens. Ruth’s Rabbi is one of the leaders in the city spearheading the desegregation movement, and though Ruth wants to fit in with the “pastel posse,” she finds herself still being drawn to social justice causes and uncomfortable with the casual racism she encounters everyday (and gets called out on her own problematic behavior a time or two as well). Ruth definitely goes through a “coming of age” journey in this book and her relationship with her Jewish identity evolves over the course of the novel.
One thing that really stood out to be about the writing in this story was how vivid the setting was and how clearly I could picture the scenes. I felt like I was lying poolside in the hot Southern sun drinking Coke and could easily imagine throwing a casual “say hey!” over my shoulder to an acquaintance. The author did a wonderful job in creating an authentic atmosphere though the descriptions, character thought processes, and dialogue.
One element I wasn’t expecting was the the novel opens and closes with a court case, and the story itself of Ruth moving and settling into Atlanta is told in between to give context to the trial. The court case revolves around the actual bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta in the 1950s that had a huge impact on the city and the country, which the author covers in the author’s note at the end of the book. I always enjoy historical fiction that covers events and happenings that perhaps do not get as much attention as others.
Overall: In the Neighborhood of True is a quick read that covers several important social issues in 1950s Atlanta, and does a good job of juggling multiple historical issues. While I do wish the book had been a bit longer, I enjoyed the novel and it’s rekindled my desire to pick up more historical fiction!