With her highly anticipated new novel Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult writes about how she doesn’t have a right to write a book about racism.
No, that’s not exactly the subject matter of the book. Infact Small Great Things is a book which is not just about racism in the literal sense that we all see it but about racism as a whole. About the side of racism that happens every single day orchestrated by those of us who have the privelege to be born with white skin. There is a passage in the novel in which one of the three narrators; Kennedy, really sums it up:
‘Active racism is telling a nurse supervisor that an African American nurse can’t touch your baby. It’s snickering at a black joke. But passsive racism? It’s noticing there’s only one person of colour in your office and not asking your boss why. It’s reading your kid’s fourth grade curriculum and seeing that the only black history covered is slavery, and not questioning why.’
Kennedy is one of three narrators who tell the story in Small Great Things. But the first narrator we hear from is the central character Ruth Jefferson. Ruth is a nurse at a labour and delivery ward, she has a son Edison who is an honours student and her husband died in Afghanistan. I hear you thinking how much of a lovely woman she seems. Then we add the fact that she is black and the little picture of the white woman you had in your head disapears.
The main storyline through Small Great Things is Ruth’s story. From her past, growing up with her mother never having enough time for her and her sister because she was (and still is) working as a maid in a white household. To her present where one day when working her job as a nurse she is banned from taking care of a baby because of the colour of her skin, to her future when the baby dies and she is used as a scapegoat and faces a horrific trial followed by potentially going to prison. We hear from Ruth who has always believed she could fit in with the white people because she went to college and has a good job and now finds herself thrown under the cart. We hear from Turk Bauer the father of the baby and a white supremacist and we hear from Kennedy the defense lawyer who takes on Ruth’s case and she sees the injustice but refuses to bring up race in the courtroom.
You may be wondering about my earlier comment about Jodi Picoult writing about not having the right to write. I say this because when you read this book you will understand. Throughout the story and the subsequent trial the author questions through Ruth’s thoughts and speech why a white lawyer should represent her. Why white people have the right to decide what happens to a black person who is on trial because of their colour.
Now this is where the real praise is needed. Jodi Picoult takes this concept and turns it on its head. She writes from the perspective of a black woman, a white lawyer and a male white supremacist. None of these of which she is. In Small Great Things she weaves together an unforgettable, unputdownable story which shows the perspective, the pain, the fear and the love of three people who are trying to survive. She evokes sympathy where none is deserved, she evokes frustration and anger and not only forces the characters to step into each others shoes but the reader to step into the characters as well. She shows how one small thing can lead to something much greater. How one small decision can change the way we think, the way we live and the bigger picture overall.
I have been in awe of this lady’s novels for a long time since I first picked up Keeping Faith 10 years ago. I not only continue to feel in awe of her written word and compassionate way of dealing with issues that others dare not even think about mentioning but I commend her on her best book yet. Without a doubt 5*