After her father dies unexpectedly of a heart attack in New York, seventeen-year-old Ruth Robb, her sister Nattie, and her mother say goodbye to their northern, urban, cosmopolitan city to move to Atlanta, Georgia, where her mom’s parents, Fontaine and Mr. Hank, have offered them their guesthouse for a home and her mom a job working as a reporter on Mr. Hank’s newspaper.
Although they recognized their son-in-law as a good man, Ruth’s Christian grandparents (Fontaine in particular) were dismayed when their daughter eloped with him, converting to his Jewish faith and raising the grandchildren as Jews. Fontaine sees an opportunity to correct that with her granddaughters. As she acclimates Ruth to the Southern Way of Life, she advises her not to disclose her religious affiliation to anyone in their social circle or at her private Christian school for fear she will miss out on pre-debutante activities and not be chosen as the annual Magnolia Queen, ending a family tradition of three generations. Ruth listens to her counsel and quickly makes a new set of friends, discovers she loves being in the social whirl, and falls in love with a handsome, charming classmate.
Worried that her daughter is abandoning her true self, Ruth’s mom insists that she attend temple weekly and also participate in Sunday training. Needless to say, tensions arise as Ruth tries to play both sides by telling what is, according to her boyfriend, “in the neighborhood of true.” This all takes place in the late 1950’s, when Klan activities, segregationist policies, and anti-semitism converge to energize civil rights activism at a level not seen before in the U.S.
I would say this book is valuable as historical fiction except not twenty minutes after I finished reading it, I saw the news headline about the Chabad of Poway shooting in San Diego County, CA, that showed us all that even though the book is set in the 1950’s, the issues are sadly current in 2019. Ruth tries so hard to hold on to the best parts of her separate lives but learns ultimately that “you can’t be on two sides.” This would be a great YA novel for class discussion for this reason, except there are passages describing Ruth’s awakening sexual relationship with her boyfriend, as well as her older sister’s advice to sleep with him to solidify the relationship (she even mails her some condoms to have on hand for her first experience). There is some mildly offensive language (hell, damn, son of a bitch, bullshit), teenage drinking and smoking, descriptions of violence (lynching, cross burning, synagogue burning). That being said, this is an interesting, well-written novel to which young adults can easily relate. Buy this one for your independent readers for sure.
Categories: Anti-Semitism, Books We Recommend, Bullying, Civil Rights, Death and Grieving, Diversity, Fashion, Grief, Historical Fiction, Navigating through High School, Offensive Language in YA Literature, Parent Conflict, Peer Relationships, Political Activism, Racism, Religion, Social Disorders, Violence