April 9, 2019
Blurb: 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.
We readers so often approach novels set in the past and believe that the struggles depicted within their pages couldn’t be relatable to us currently. As I read Susan Kaplan Carlton’s In the Neighborhood of True, I thought of how little we had actually changed, especially in light of blatant events in the past few years.
Ruth has just lost her beloved father to a heart attack five months earlier and now she, her mother, and younger sister have moved in with her grandparents in Atlanta. Ruth is immediately swept up in the fashionable world of pre-debutantes and aspires to wear a crown like her grandmother and mother did before her. However, if anyone ever discovers that she is Jewish, she’d have little chance of attaining that crown.
The conflicts Ruth feels are understandable, especially as she has her eyes opened to the violence and oppression of the Jim Crow south but still wants to enjoy the seeming beauty and culture of Atlanta’s affluent. While she calls herself “shallow” frequently, Ruth simply strikes me as a young woman who is on the road to discovery and one of the biggest discoveries is who she is.
Even Ruth’s relationships are telling. She falls in love with the handsome boy with the dimple, Davis, who’s a stargazer and wants to be someone who travels in space, perhaps to ignore all of the ugliness around him, but she can only really be herself with Max, a Jewish college student, who is smart, brash, wears Buddy Holly glasses and frequently annoys her although he is fighting the fight for social justice.
While the pacing of most of the novel was on target, I felt the end was too speedy with everything too nicely sorted especially when the opportunity was ripe for conflict, belief challenges, and the messiness that comes from clashing cultures. However, Ruth does find herself, and the reader suspects that Ruth’s future will entail some messiness.
I received an ARC from Algonquin Young Readers in exchange for an honest review.
4 out of 5 butterflies
The Whole Truth
The navy dress was just where I’d left it, hanging hollow as a compliment behind the gown I’d worn to the Magnolia Ball the night everything went to hell in a handbasket.
I thought of Davis and his single dimple and how his hand had hovered at the small of my back, making me feel its phantom weight even when he wasn’t touching me. I thought of a different day and a different dress, this one with sunburst pleats-how he’d unzipped it and fanned it out on the grass that night at the club, how the air was sweet as taffy, and how when we rejoined his family I’d wondered if every pleat was back in place.
“Ruth!” Mother’s voice burst into the closet. “Not the morning to dillydally.”
“Coming,” I said, but I did the opposite of not-dallying. I put the navy dress on over my slip and sat, right there on the closet floor, not giving a fig about wrinkles. It was as if my nerves had pitched the world ten degrees to the left and I had to plunk down to find my balance.
It was cool at the back of the closet-in what I’d come to think of as my New York section, the land of navies and blacks and grays-where the floor was concrete, smooth and solid beneath me.
When we’d first arrived here at the end of an airless sum mer, Mother, who’d changed from Mom to Mother when we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, told her parents, whom we’d always called Fontaine and Mr. Hank, that Nattie and I needed wall-to-wall carpet to cushion our landing. Maybe we needed cushioning after the shock of our father’s death, or maybe we needed cushioning after moving from our apart ment in New York to our grandparents’ guesthouse behind the dogwoods. Either way, the next afternoon, two men turned up with a roll of white carpet and stapled it over every square inch of the place, save for the closets.
Just like that, we were blanketed in an ironic, improbable snowstorm.
“Now, Ruthie,” Mother said, on the other side of the door.
I stood up and pulled in, feeling the dread in my chest prickle from the inside out.
The dress reminded me of Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, except I was an American in Atlanta , and in the six months I’d been here, my taste and I had gone from simple to posh to simple again. If the girls in the pastel posse were in the courtroom today, I bet they’d be in shades of sherbet, rays of sunshine against the February sky.
Today, I didn’t want to be sunny.
Today, I wanted to be Plain Ruth, teller of truth.
General Q&A with the Author:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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)
- 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, a longtime magazine writer, currently teaches writing at Boston University. She lived for a time with her family in Atlanta, where her daughters learned the fine points of etiquette from a little pink book and learned the power of social justice from their synagogue. Carlton’s writing has appeared in Self, Elle, Mademoiselle, Seventeen, Parents, and elsewhere. She is the author of the young adult novels Love & Haight, which was named a Best Book for Young Adults by YALSA and a Best Book by the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street Books, and Lobsterland.