Richard and Judy Review Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
"This is a brave book because of course Picoult is white and is unafraid of revealing to her readers how even white people with the best of intentions can get it wrong."
Small Great Things is Jodi Picoult at her scintillating best. Typically, this accomplished writer takes a complicated, controversial and timely social dilemma and fleshes it out with her characters; so you get both the moral implications of a genuinely worrying situation, plus the warmth and anxieties of the individuals living a nightmare.
Picoult’s theme in this novel is racism – a perennial and recurring scandal in America with especial relevance right now because of the protests over Donald Trump’s allegedly racist and divisive presidential policies.
She writes about the racist assumptions most liberal white people think they don’t have, and demonstrates that even though they feel they don’t ‘see’ colour, and don’t have a racist bone in their bodies, they also don’t see that their comfortable white privileged existences set them aside from people of colour in almost every respect.
This is a brave book because of course Picoult is white and is unafraid of revealing to her readers how even white people with the best of intentions can get it wrong.
Ruth is a widowed black woman living with her 16-year-old son in Connecticut. Always bright and clever, she regards herself as middle-class and well-educated. She lives in a ‘good’, predominately white neighbourhood; her son attends an excellent school where his best friends are both rich and white.
Ruth herself is a hugely experienced and capable midwife in a small maternity unit. She has an impeccable record and is highly regarded as a competent professional. She is, however, the only African-American nurse on her unit. She assumed everyone there feels she is their equal. She has a lot of quiet pride and dignity.
And then, purely because of her colour, her life falls apart.
"This is a serious and thought-provoking book, but also a warm and utterly fascinating read."
Ruth’s comfortable existence is shattered by an explosive event. A white supremacist couple arrive for the woman to give birth to her first baby. Picoult vividly describes the revolting and squalid depths of their hatred for black people.
They refuse to let Ruth look after their new-born son and despite all her proven skill, her bosses actually humour them. She is barred from attending baby Davis.
She is shocked. She cannot understand how her colleagues can treat her in this appalling way. And then, piled on humiliation, disaster. Because the unit is short-staffed, Ruth finds herself alone in a nursery when baby Davis has a cardiac arrest.
She’s been forbidden to touch him, remember? So what should she do?
The upshot is that the baby dies and Ruth – totally unjustly – gets the blame. She is accused of not just negligence, but homicide. Her alleged motive? Resentment against the couple who insulted her ethnicity.
The case goes to trial and Ruth’s defence lawyer is a white woman called Kennedy McQuarrie. Kennedy is a decent, liberal woman who is genuinely outraged by Ruth’s persecution. And it’s through the lawyer’s character that we come to understand just how systemic and insidious racist assumptions actually are.
Kennedy tells Ruth not to use racial discrimination as her defence: juries – and judges – don’t like the accused ‘playing the race card’.
The way Ruth changes Kennedy’s easy liberal assumptions makes for gripping courtroom drama. This is a serious and thought-provoking book, but also a warm and utterly fascinating read.
We know you’ve wanted to write about racism for a long time now, but didn’t feel you could. What changed?
Twenty years ago, I tried to write about race and racism and failed miserably. I couldn’t seem to create authentic characters and situations. I doubted my right to write a book about that, as well. After all, who am I – as a white woman who’s had plenty of privilege – to tell someone of colour what her life is like? Racism is fraught, and hard to discuss, and we tend to be afraid of offending people by saying the wrong thing – and so often white people don’t talk about it AT ALL.
Then I came across a 2012 news story about a Black nurse who’d helped deliver a baby, only to have the father call her supervisor in and request that she not touch his infant. He revealed to the supervisor a swastika tattoo – he was a skinhead. The hospital put a note in the baby’s file, and in real life the African American personnel sued the hospital for discrimination and won. But I wondered . . . what if? What if that nurse had been alone with that baby and something went wrong? What if she wound up on trial defended by a white public defender who, like many of my friends, would never consider herself a racist? What if their interaction led them both to realise that what they’d been taught about race and racism might not be what actually is true?
Suddenly I knew why I would be able to finish this book – I had been addressing the wrong audience. I wasn’t writing it to tell Black people what their lives are like – that’s not my story to tell, and it never will be. I was writing it to people who look like me – people with light skin – who can easily point to a skinhead to say ‘that’s a racist’ but can’t point to themselves to say the same thing. Racism is not just about prejudice – it’s about power – and if you are born with light skin in America, you hold all the power.
The main female characters – nurse Ruth and lawyer Kennedy – are each heroic in their own way, but also flawed. Was it hard to balance the arguments and conclusions they each come to?
I don’t believe anyone is ever one hundred per cent good or one hundred per cent evil. I want my characters to present believably, so that readers can recognise themselves in those portraits. Kennedy is an ‘everywoman’, for many white people I know. She is me before I wrote this book, and she is so many of my readers I can’t begin to count (who have written to me in droves). Her gradual awareness of Ruth’s struggle – and of her own complicity in the structure that leads a person of colour to have to struggle – forms the arc of the novel. That is the power behind this story: there are honest, decent people out there who don’t believe that they are at all prejudiced – but as they read, they slowly realise they are. Kennedy is someone who literally has devoted her life to being an advocate for the voiceless. She believed wholeheartedly that she understood what it meant to be a person of colour in the US. She didn’t, and this misapprehension was nearly disastrous.
Ruth, on the other hand, also has an arc of growth. She starts out by thinking that if she subverts her culture and lives in a white community and works in a white job, she can blend in with white people unnoticed. However, after being targeted solely for the colour of her skin in the workplace, and realising that her expertise does not matter in comparison, she begins to realise the mistake she has made by assuming she could fly under the radar of racism. Her hurt and her frustration, as flattened and tamped down for so long as it had been, is frightening when it finally explodes. It is this that threatens Kennedy’s defence case when it comes to court. Ruth was my favourite character to write in this novel.
You are well known for your assiduous research into the background of your stories. Is it a burden, or a pleasure?
In this case, it was eye-opening. I couldn’t ask readers to process their own biases if I had not done it myself. To that end, I did a great deal of research, beginning with going to a racial justice workshop. I went in thinking (like Kennedy) I wasn’t a racist. I left in tears every night. I was so deeply moved by the stories I heard – the Asian American woman who talked about her love-hate affair with eyeliner, because it was the American standard of beauty, but hard to use with her features. The African American woman who said that she had to put on a metaphorical mask every day before walking out the door to be the kind of Black woman others could handle. I also met with a multitude of Black women who shared their hopes, fears, frustrations with me – and braided their voices into Ruth’s. There was the young girl who carried an Ivy League school’s water bottle on the train so as white people walked by they realised she was ‘safe’ to sit with. A young mom who came in the morning after a police shooting of an unarmed Black man, and asked how she could keep her son safe when he grew up – how she could teach him to not be Black. I had pretty much ignored racism my whole life. It wasn’t until I began to research this book that I realised that’s a privilege in and of itself.
Morality and principles are obviously enormously important to you. Could you ever see yourself writing a book that was simply frivolous and funny?
The YA novels I wrote with my daughter were a breath of fresh air because they were JUST that – fun, light and sweet. Luckily, I am in the process of adapting them as a Broadway musical, so I still get to escape some of the heavier issues in my daily writing!
- This novel addresses some difficult issues. Did you find it a challenging read?
- Discuss the title of the novel.
- Do you feel the novel is ultimately optimistic about the condition of the world?
- Which character in the novel did you relate to most?
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