Jodi Picoult is one of America’s most popular authors but apart from My Sister’s Keeper which I read in 2005 before I started this blog, I’ve never been very interested in her brand of issues-based story-telling. However, late last year I caught the tail-end of a Radio National program about Small Great Things which tackles racism, and was sufficiently interested to bring the audio-book home when I stumbled on it on the shelves at the library.
As it says on the Books and Arts website, the set-up for the novel is this:
Ruth Jefferson is the only African American nurse at the birthing centre where she works.
A white supremacist couple don’t want her to care for their baby. The hospital accepts this request.
After a routine procedure, Ruth is left alone with the baby, and due to complications, the baby dies.
She is charged with murder.
The novel suffers from an overdose of melodrama, the court-room scenes are used for speechifying rather than realism, and the end-of-novel redemptions completely lack credibility, but these defects, I think are forgiveable in the wider scheme of things. The intent (made explicit in the author’s afterword) is to make White Americans think about everyday racism, and about how White people view the world through the prism of their own privilege without realising that they’re doing it.
The characterisation, for a start, is very effective. It’s told from three perspectives:
- The nurse (Ruth Jefferson) dealing with the shock discovery that a lifetime’s hard work, dedication and forbearance in the face of racism in the workplace, can fall apart because of her colour;
- the public defender lawyer (Kennedy McQuarrie) and her personal journey towards realising that racism can’t be brushed under the carpet in the courtroom; and
- the White supremacist father (Turk Bauer) whose racism morphs into something much more dangerous when he wants someone to blame for the death of his child.
Given this cast it would have been easy to let stereotypes take over yet the totally unlikeable White supremacist parents are humanised by their loss. The male narrator is particularly good at rendering this character as wholly contemptible so it’s even more effective when the tragedy of their child’s unexpected death shows him as a father devastated by grief. Ruth OTOH has a very angry, less successful and clearly jealous sister called Adisa who taunts her after her humiliating arrest, saying that now maybe she will realise that no amount of hard work and respectable behaviour will ever make her ‘fit in’. And Kennedy, who bears the weight of Picoult’s didactic message, is surprisingly lively. Young and inexperienced, she resists being typecast by Adisa (who’s very rude to her), she resists any suggestion that she needs to do Racism 101, and she’s up against the conservatism of the courts so her learning journey is a struggle. She has a too-good-to-be-true husband who just happens to know medical experts who can help with the defence, but she also has a mother who just doesn’t ‘get it’ when she tries to discuss what she’s up against, and she’s tyrannised by her small daughter Violet at home as well.
There’s a moment in the novel when Ruth’s teenage son Edison ponders the possibility that he might become a lawyer, and while his inclination is to work for the defence, he says his life has been more of a preparation for the prosecution. This is because the onus of proof is always on him, as a Black person, to prove his case. This onus of proof is manifested in ways big and small, as Kennedy finds when she goes shopping with Ruth, and it is Ruth, not she, who is always asked for ID when she produces her credit card at the checkout. The novel is very good at demonstrating these examples of what are sometimes called micro-aggressions, the hundreds of small, pseudo-insignificant ways in which people of colour are routinely humiliated. The bigger picture is that Ruth, a very good nurse with twenty years experience, would never have been charged if the racism of the parents had not triggered a chain of events. (The novel makes it clear from the beginning that there is never any question that she was negligent or harmful to the baby).
The novel is also very good at exposing a common view held by well-meaning White people: like Kennedy at the beginning of her relationship with Ruth, they can afford to say that they don’t ‘see colour’ because it doesn’t affect them. But people of colour don’t have that luxury; they have to deal with being ‘other’ every day of their lives. There are flaws in the novel which make me hesitate, especially in the resolution of Turk’s wife’s situation which I can’t discuss because of spoilers, but overall, this is a book which offers food for thought and given Picoult’s popularity, may even have an influence. Pitched squarely at middle America, Small Great Things has a message for Australians too.
Author: Jodi Picoult
Title: Small Great Things
Read by Audra Ann McDonald, Cassandra Campbell, and Ari Fliakos
Publisher: Bolinda Audio, 2016
Source: Kingston Library
This audio book edition says that it is a library edition only but you can buy the Allen & Unwin print edition from Fishpond: Small Great Things