Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine Books, 2016)
When the last thing we notice
Is the color of skin,
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within;
When the skies and oceans are clean again,
We shall be free.
Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is quite simply a WOW book. What defines a WOW book to me is a novel that uses multi-faceted characters whose motivations to action are complex and powerful. A WOW book is one that makes the reader look inside him/herself and forces one to evaluate who s/he is in life. Just as the lyrics of “We Shall Be Free” by Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis give me chills every time I hear it, a WOW book gives the reader an opportunity to start productive conversations that may potentially change society for the better. A WOW book floods the reader with emotion as it builds to an unexpected and poignant climax. A WOW book leaves the reader with a lump in one's throat, tears in one's eyes, and a feeling that the time reading this particular work was well spent.
Jodi Picoult, author of twenty-two best-sellers, is known for taking a current event and using it as a starting point for her compelling stories. Nineteen Minutes, for example, is about a fictional town in New Hampshire that experiences a school shooting, not unlike the tragic Columbine. Picoult's prose is fluid and she is a solid story writer. Some times her novels are great; sometimes they fall a little flat.
Small Great Things takes a leap, though, which Picoult acknowledges in the Author's Note at the novel's conclusion. “About four years into my writing career, I wanted to write a book about racism in the United States,” she reveals. (p. 459) However, her attempts at creating such a novel failed because, “I didn't know what it was like to grow up Black in this country, and I was having trouble creating a fictional character that rang true.” (p. 459) It took twenty years of research, intense conversations with women of color, and thought to take the kernel of truth for this tale to be honed into the convincing
story that it is.
“I read a news story about an African American nurse in Flint, Michigan,” Picoult states. “She had worked in labor and delivery for over twenty years and then one day a baby's dad asked to see her supervisor. He requested that this nurse, and those who looked like her, not touch his infant. He turned out to be a white supremacist.” (p.460)
From the newspaper story that Picoult used as her springboard, the author created three main characters, Ruth Jefferson, an African-American labor and delivery nurse with twenty years of experience at the hospital in which she works, Turk Bauer, a white supremacist who has the tattoo of a swastika on his head with the names of his wife, Brit, and himself intertwined, and Kennedy McQuarrie, a young, white public defender, who volunteers to take on her first murder case in order to defend the woman whom she believes to be innocent of a murder charge. Each section of the novel relates the story from the point of view of these characters, and what Picoult does so successfully is peel back the layers of each character and show us how they came to be where they are.
Ruth Jefferson has done everything by the book in her life. She played the game in order to be successful, studying hard, going to college and Yale School of Nursing. She married a man whom she loved, but was widowed when her soldier-husband was killed in Afghanistan, an American war hero. She has fostered a love for learning in her brilliant, teenaged son, Edison, and has saved money for his college education so that he could achieve the American dream. She loves her job, which she has done effectively for so many years, even taking double shifts as she did on the night of the death of newborn Davis Bauer. Due to the fact that Davis' father, Turk, had refused to have his son touched by a black nurse, when Ruth is left alone with the child and he goes into respiratory distress, she is faced with a conundrum. Should she violate the order that she is to keep her hands off this baby, or should she follow the creed of Florence Nightengale and do everything in her power to save the spawn of a white supremacist? Either way that Ruth decides to go, she is put into a lose-lose situation that could destroy everything that she has worked for throughout her life.
Through the ordeal of each of the protagonists in Small Great Things, the characters come to understand all that lies beneath the surface of who they are, and therein lies the true power of the novel. No matter how white people in this country believe that we understand the black experience, we do not. Remember what Atticus Finch told his precocious daughter, Scout in an American classic about racism.
Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In Small Great Things Kennedy believes that she is “color blind,” that is until she spends a day shopping with Ruth, who has become her client. While the women shop in T.J. Maxx, employees watch Ruth suspiciously as she moves through the store. She is asked to present her identification when checking out at the register, although Kennedy is not, and the security guard insists on checking Ruth's purc.hases against her receipt as she tries to exit the store.
It is then that Kennedy has her epiphany. She states, “That's when I realize that Ruth didn't want me to come here with her because she needed help picking out a present for her mother. Ruth wanted me to come here so that I could understand what it was like to be her.” (p. 264) Kennedy had prided herself on her acceptance of people of other races, but she had never “gotten into their skin and walked around in it” before.
Having honest conversations about race in America is not easy. While whites don't want to offend, or think we know what it's like to be different, whether its race, culture, sexuality, etc., unless we do as Atticus Finch suggested, we cannot really know. However, in Small Great Things Jodi Picoult has given us a novel that can open dialogues that perhaps can help us all to “be free.” I wholeheartedly recommend that if you are looking to be WOWWED, read Small Great Things.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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