I wish that I had read more books in school that actually spoke to how pervasive and insidious prejudice is. Most of the required reading sort of danced around these issues or had protagonists that didn’t feel exactly relatable. “In the Neighborhood of True” is a powerful YA novel that illustrates how crucial the need to fit in can feel as a young person and how easy it is to betray ourselves to sate that need.
The novel is set in 1958 and is told through the perspective of Ruth Robb, a Jewish American teenager who is uprooted from her more liberal birthplace of New York City to Atlanta (which has a whole other set of rules and customs). Ruth is desperate to fit in with the debutante girls – Southern belles who are all painted with a superficial, judgmental nature. She changes how she dresses, how she speaks, and even what’s important to her, all in the name of blending in. Ruth begins to see the prejudice around her and chooses to keep her religion hidden from her new friends.
The setting of Atlanta is perfect to showcase the still-flourishing Ku Klux Klan in its obvious and blatant racism and prejudice but also the way more subtle discrimination was allowed (country clubs where Jews weren’t permitted for example). Ruth tries to navigate all of this while still trying to convince herself that she has nothing to hide (and that her friends would end up accepting her if they found out).
The first half of the book goes along at a simmer, but when the action picks up, it’s very compelling. I found myself spending the whole book just hoping that Ruth would tell everyone around her the truth, that she would embrace her heritage and her religion, no matter the consequences. But then I found myself also remembering what it feels like to be a teenager – when the acceptance of those around you can feel like it overshadows nearly everything else. I’ve been lucky to not have experienced much direct discrimination because of being Jewish, and so I had to remind myself that someone who is surrounded by the cold nature of prejudice wouldn’t feel so free to unburden themselves. In fact, in so many instances, it can be downright dangerous (and sometimes deadly) to fully display what makes you different. Unfortunately, this is still as true in 2020 as it was in 1958.
My only complaint about the novel was that the ending felt rushed. We’re introduced to Ruth in the very beginning of the story as a witness in a court case (although we don’t really know what it’s pertaining to). By the time the book got around to this essential part of the plot revolving around a violent hate crime, it was over rather quickly. I would have loved to read more about Ruth’s inner turmoil during this part of her life (perhaps instead of as much content about her choosing a debutante dress).
While “In the Neighborhood of True” is not based specifically on a real person, it was inspired by real events in the South at this time. There were enough historical references mentioned so that the book felt truly authentic. I hope that YA books such as this one (that discuss important themes like racism) are included more in school curriculum. It can be truly valuable to find content that is both relatable but also that lets us learn something more about the world around us.
*Free ARC provided by Algonquin Young Readers in exchange for an honest review*