THOUGHTS ON JODI PICOULT'S SMALL GREAT THINGS
A black nurse, Ruth, is forbidden to care for a newborn of white supremist parents. The baby goes into cardiac arrest while Ruth is in the nursery. The child dies and Ruth is charged for murder.
I bought Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things at the recommendation of a friend. I enjoy reading but for some reason don’t often gravitate toward novels. So I had heard of Picoult but wasn’t at all familiar with her or her work. The book came in the mail, I russelled through the first few pages to familiarize myself with it. I read the literary praise from a host of notable publications. And then I flipped it over to find a picture of the author and a synopsis of the book. Oh….Jodi Picoult is a white women, I thought. She is a white woman, who wrote a book about race, predominantly through the eyes of the book’s protagonist, Ruth, a black women. I hesitated. I put the book down and didn’t touch it for three days. Then I decided I would read it and then write about how Picoult's good-willed attempt didn’t hit the mark.
500 pages later, I realized I was wrong. Picoult impressed me, I believe she especially impressed every black person who read this novel, expecting it to be a well meaning yet shallow attempt at grasping race, racism and what it means to be black in America. On the contrary, it is extremely clear that Picoult did a substantial amount of research to bring this book to life. The most difficult, I imagine, being the deep dive she had to do into the white nationalist movement, revealing some extremely dark realities of our country. Additionally, perhaps what she did most devotedly, was learning and immersing herself, as much she could, into what it means to be black in this country. In order to write this book effectively she had to have an extensive understanding of the disenfranchisement based on race that happens in hospitals, courtrooms, prisons, schools, neighborhoods, playgrounds and right inside of our homes. This is hard, grueling work, especially when you come to realize, as she admits she did, that she played a part in perpetuating racism herself.
One of my favorite aspects of the book was how Picoult weaves the fabric of each character so carefully, so meticulously, that even in the darkest moments of the novel, in hearts full of hatred and venom, you see humanity. And even in the most well-meaning and well-educated people, you see racial prejudice and ignor(e)ance (you’ll get it when you read the book).
If I can be frank, and I mean this with all the positive over and undertones, this book was written to teach good intentioned white people about race, racism, the different ways that they exists and are perpetuated in America. Many white people haven't explored race like this, because they don’t have to. Think I am being bias? Read this note from Picoult:
“To the black people reading Small Great Things - I hope I listened well enough to those in your community who opened their hearts to me to be able to represent your experiences with accuracy. And to the white people reading Small Great Things - we are all works in progress. Personally I don’t have all the answers and I am still evolving daily….Yes, talking about racism is hard to do, and yes, we stumble over the words- but we who are white need to have this discussion among ourselves. Because then, even more of us will overhear, and - I hope - the conversation will spread.”
In her careful characterization of her white characters, Picoult makes clear overt racism, the kind we all shake our head at and condemn. But she highlights the more covert versions of racism as well, that are disguised in mentions of colorblindness, that are seen in institutional power, that are felt when peaceful protest are propagandized as unpatriotic and when black bodies are seen as disposable. The whole time I was reading the book I felt like it wasn’t written for me, which did not make me appreciate it any less. We need this type of literature from people who look like Picoult. We need white people to discuss racism amongst themselves, to become more aware of how race functions in this country, and how the fact that many of them haven’t had to think about it, is exactly what distinguishes their privilege. I love this line from Picoult’s Author’s Note:
“When it comes to social justice, the role of the white ally is not to be a savior or a fixer. Instead the role of the ally is to find other white people and talk to make them see that many benefits they’ve enjoyed in life are direct results of the fact that someone else did not have the same benefits.”
This is not to say that black people, should not read this book as well, but this book was not meant to teach black people anything, and Picoult makes that clear. Her hope was to accurately portray black life, the black experience...she did that well. As a black person reading this novel, even with all the darkness and evil in it, it makes me feel hopeful. Hopeful that people will care, hopeful that people will change, hopeful that some 40-something white woman who loved Picoult novels in the past, will choose this book for her book club and it will start a chain reaction amongst her family and friends of racial self-awareness. So that maybe, even though it seems we have veered so far off tract as a nation, we can still do small great things together.