I am in so much of of how an author could write a story that is both a fun and sweet coming of age tale of a teenage girl (is there anything more complicated than being a teenager?!), but also simultaneously tackle complicated and complex subjects that make you think and feel and react.
It’s the 1950’s in NYC and Ruth Robb’s father has just died. Her mother whisks her and her sister away from the city they call home, to what feels like another world. 1950’s Atlanta to live with her grandparents. It takes Ruth no time to adjust to the endless glasses of sweet tea and boundless southern charm, as she slowly starts to enjoy spending time with the pastel posse girls, engaging in endless conversations of debutantes, dances and designer dresses.
What she struggles to adjust to, is where that charm tends to cross the line – the racial references to anyone whose skin isn’t white, whose hair isn’t blond, and the references that the KKK is always just around the corner pushing for segregation, denouncing Jews and Blacks alike, is evident in every day encounters and conversations.
The hardest struggle is that Ruth IS Jewish. And that just won’t do in this town. At this time. So she hides it, and balances her new life of days with the debutantes dodging racial slurs and religious digs, and weekends at Temple, grasping at her heart and soul to stay true, and steadfast.
But then something awful happens, and Ruth needs to decide if she is going to fit in, or stand out. And it’s a joy to watch her decide.
I loved Ruth – she is strong and witty and you root for her to find the courage to find herself in such a confusing and complicated era. In such a tumultuous time in the world, and her life – you hope she can choose wisely, between 2 very different conflicting lives that she’s been living and struggling to balance. A wonderful story!
Thank you to Susan Kaplan Carlton and Algonquin Young Readers for the opportunity to read and review this book!
In the Neighborhood of True is available now – you can get it here!
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers (April 9, 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1616208600
- ISBN-13: 978-1616208608
And you can read the first chapter here: True_Chapter 1
A Q&A with Susan
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
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.