Where You’ve Got to Be

  • Review
By – January 12, 2023

Nolie and Lin­den Beck are sis­ters who are close enough in age to almost be twins — but by mid­dle school, they seem to have lit­tle in com­mon. They live on New York City’s Upper West Side with their hard­work­ing moth­er, a nurse, and their father, the own­er of Joey’s Shoes, a busi­ness that has long been in their fam­i­ly. Both par­ents are sup­port­ive and lov­ing, and the girls are also for­tu­nate to have their grand­moth­er in the neigh­bor­hood. How­ev­er, as the new school year begins, Nolie begins to feel increas­ing­ly alien­at­ed from her fam­i­ly and from her for­mer best friend. Through it all, Car­o­line Gertler depicts Nolie’s search for self with sen­si­tiv­i­ty, posi­tion­ing her dilem­ma with­in the frame­work of Jew­ish life.

Nolie assumes that the path to self-dis­cov­ery is sim­ple for those who have an over­whelm­ing pas­sion, as does her sis­ter. Lin­den, to be sure, has been obsessed with bal­let from a young age. She per­forms with the New York City Bal­let and is about to audi­tion for a star­ring role in The Nut­crack­er. While Nolie con­sid­ers her­self bright, she has nev­er found one goal that attracts the kind of atten­tion that she believes is unfair­ly award­ed to Linden.

When Nolie’s best friend, Jes­sa, forces her into a super­fi­cial pro­gram of changes in an attempt to pol­ish her rough edges, the girls’ for­mer close­ness is dam­aged beyond repair. Even Grandma’s uncon­di­tion­al accep­tance is not enough to sus­tain Nolie’s faith in her­self. Gertler cap­tures Nolie’s anguish with­out exag­ger­at­ed dra­ma, choos­ing to focus instead on the small insults and self-doubt that plague many tweens. What’s more, Gertler’s atten­tion to spe­cif­ic New York loca­tions affords the nov­el a con­vinc­ing specificity.

And then there is Lin­den. In addi­tion to the demands of bal­let prac­tice and per­for­mance, she is aware of the poten­tial scruti­ny she faces as a Jew­ish girl tak­ing the lead in an icon­ic Christ­mas event — and of the irony that she is prepar­ing for her bat mitz­vah at the same time. Although she is proud of the fact that oth­er Jew­ish bal­leri­nas have paved the way for her, she also dis­cov­ers that ordi­nary com­pe­ti­tion and tox­ic anti­semitism add to the anx­i­ety she already suffers.

Nolie also con­tem­plates her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Con­ver­sa­tions with her grand­moth­er relay a hazy back­ground of prej­u­dice and the need to be accept­ed in Amer­i­can soci­ety. Gertler describes Nolie’s mem­o­ries of first learn­ing that she is Jew­ish: It sound­ed like a fun­ny word … Like a breeze whistling through your lips … as she’d got­ten old­er, Jew­ish had some­times felt like a dirty word — some­thing you didn’t want to iden­ti­fy about your­self in pub­lic.” The author sug­gests that anti­semitism is not always obvi­ous, and that cul­ti­vat­ing a pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship with one’s own Jew­ish iden­ti­ty may be a com­pli­cat­ed, ongo­ing process.

Nolie ulti­mate­ly learns it is nec­es­sary to both change and affirm the past. Some things might break,” she says, but oth­er things, or even the bro­ken things, came togeth­er in new ways.” By story’s end, Nolie comes to define who she is, and how to piece togeth­er the con­tra­dic­tions that chal­lenge her.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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