Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Years ago, I read my first Jodi Picoult novel. My Sister’s Keeper left me so devastated I never picked up any of her dozens of other titles. I stayed glued to my lumpy futon reading into the wee hours of the night. A glutton for punishment, I watched the movie adaptation with the cousin, who, also devastated by the book, suggested I read it. Of course the book was a million times better, but I never ventured to read another Picoult novel, though I’ve been tempted.
Before the release of Small Great Things, I was inundated with publicity for it. Mostly via social media sponsored ads, book giveaways, etc. I started to sign up to attend a Picoult author appearance, but opted out. If I attended the event, I’d want an autograph which would require purchasing the hardcover. I had resolved that one area to save money is to buy less books, or at the very least purchase paperbacks. I figured I’d read other books in the interim until Small Great Things became available in paperback.
So I thought. It was chosen as a book club selection.
I panicked. I didn’t know if it’s Picoult’s MO is to write gut-wrenching stories like it’s Edwidge Danticat’s to write about the Haitian-American experience. I debated skipping that month’s meeting, but after being delinquent for the second half of 2016 I rejected that idea. I was also hesitant because of my whole slowing down of buying books thing. If I continue buying books (and not reading them) at an uncontrolled rate, I’d be able to open my own boutique bookstore, my old deferred dream.
I borrowed a copy from the library about a week before my book club brunch. I’m glad I did. The book left me with mixed feelings.
Ruth Jefferson is a veteran nurse with a twenty-year stellar career until she is faced with a Catch-22 situation. After caring for a newborn baby boy, his white supremacist parents request that she be removed from his care. Though this mandate is written in the child’s file with a Post-It note, Ruth is left alone with the baby when the unit is short-staffed due to an emergency. The infant suffers a cardiac arrest and Ruth must decide whether to follow the mandate of not touching the baby or begin life-saving procedures. Shortly after she begins CPR, other personnel return and they join in trying to save the baby. They are unsuccessful. To add insult to injury, the hospital and the parents blame Ruth.
What ensues in the novel is frustrating, both because of what Ruth must endure but also because of how Picoult writes about black people in a somewhat stereotypical way.
Some of the thoughts and feelings expressed by Ruth are true to the black experience and prove that Picoult at the very least spoke to and sought advice from black women, like when she writes about the anguish of having a mother who works as a domestic for a white family. However, that in itself is a stereotype. Picoult could’ve done better than the narrative of an older black woman working as a maid in the 2000s. Add to that Ruth who is fairer than her sister is the more successful of the two, in all possible ways. She went to college and has a career. While she is a single mother, this is only because she was widowed, and her son attends private school. Ruth’s sister, portrayed as militant (read: angry black woman), has multiple children, lives on public assistance in a poor neighborhood, and is bitter about everything.
Picoult makes a point of highlighting that she’s done her research, or is at least aware of hot button topics and current events in the black community, like the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and others which are mentioned in the novel. Frankly, those were the clues that the novel takes place in current times. A prominent white family having a black maid who has to ride the service elevator instead of the regular one gave me the impression the book took place in the 50s or 60s. And then there was the blatantly open white supremacist.
Turk is the white supremacist father of the dead baby. Through Turk, Picoult once again shows that she has done her research in terms of writing about the recruitment process, mentality, and actions of white supremacists.
Turk’s hatred of blacks is born after his older brother dies in a car crash involving a black driver who did not receive jail time. The then-grieving teen is easily recruited and devotes his time energy to the white power movement. He falls in love and has a child with the daughter of one of the leaders. His character development does not seem rushed even though he’s more of a supporting character in the novel. We learn more about his childhood, parents, and current life than about Ruth’s. The clean-up of his life at the end of the novel feels rushed and is a let-down. It is not a feel good moment for me, as I’m sure it was probably intended to be.
Small Great Things is a timely novel. It deals with race relations, which of course means dealing with prejudices, hatred, privilege, discontent, mistrust and other complicated things. I usually marvel when I find the title and its meaning in the novel. Truth be told, I missed it. Despite my gripes about the novel, it was still a good read. Some of my book club members were of the same opinion, others were not. I recommend it if not for the sole purpose of starting a conversation.