by Jodi Picoult, 2016
I have never read anything by Jodi Picoult, mainly because I have always believed that her subject matter and writing style would not appeal to me. Small Great Things has gotten a fair amount of buzz due to its unapologetic tackling of racism and when I read Book Worm’s thoughtful review last year, I was intrigued. I will say that I was not wrong. I did not love Picoult’s style and I don’t see myself picking up more of her books in the future, but I do think that, for all she got right and wrong about race and prejudice, this was an important story for Picoult to tell. I think it will be an important story for many to read.
The gist of the story is this: Ruth Jefferson, a black labor and delivery nurse, is removed from the care of Davis Bauer, the newly born son to white supremacist parents Turk and Brittany. When Ruth is subsequently left alone with Davis and complications arise, Turk draws a criminal suit against Ruth, claiming that she acted in retribution. The story is told from the viewpoints of Ruth, Turk, and Kennedy McQuarrie, Ruth’s public defender who is white.
My main issue with the book is that Picoult paints her characters with comically broad strokes. They are caricatures of their races, easily identifiable as if her audience would be unable to classify them without her help. Turk sports a swastika tattoo on his head, runs a white power website, and has no qualms about beating up black or gay people. Ruth’s mother works as servant to a white family; her darker skinned, militant sister has changed her name and lives in an unappealing part of the city with her five children whom she started birthing at 18; her son is thrown to the ground and handcuffed when the police come to charge Ruth for the crime. Kennedy is the well-meaning white person who “doesn’t see race,” who believes that we have achieved something like equality because she does not have to see evidence to the contrary. These are not characters with nuance and I found myself regularly rolling my eyes at the number of stereotypes Picoult forces on these three.
That is not to say that these characteristics don’t exist, for stereotypes do not emerge from a vacuum. However, seeing them piled up so highly, so brightly displayed, makes me question if Picoult went down a checklist given to her, ticking off boxes to make sure she represented these characters “correctly.” The sections from Turk’s viewpoint were, understandably, the most difficult to read. With liberal use of the N-word and unbridled hatred toward others, it is impossible to sympathize with the grieving father, and I’m not sure we’re meant to. Yet, Ruth’s sections were off-putting to me in a different way – they feel as if they were written from afar, by someone who was trying so hard to present a realistic portrait, to show they understood, but constantly failed. (The feelings they give me remind me, in part, of when I was once asked about putting grease in my hair because “that’s what black girls do.” It was an attempt to make me fit into to an ignorant stereotype; it was not an attempt to get to know anything about me.) It was only in Kennedy’s sections that I felt at all comfortable, and it occurs to me now that perhaps this is because she is the character most like the writer – a well-meaning white woman who is unaware of her own role in upholding a racist system. There was truth to be found here.
For all the missteps of the story, where Picoult shines brightest is in her author’s note at the end. She firmly classifies herself as a white woman of privilege, mostly unequipped to tell the story of a black woman trodden upon by a prejudiced society. I appreciated the fact that she acknowledges that she cannot write for or to a black audience and instead was writing for those like her, those who believe they “do not see color,” who are blind to the micro-aggressions of everyday minority life, who think that because they do not experience racism or hate, it does not exist. Indeed, it is easy to recognize racism in the overwrought character of Turk Bauer, but Picoult’s mission was to get her readers to recognize it in themselves.
Ultimately, the book’s end leaves much to be desired. I could write an entire essay on how Picoult effectively undermines the central message of the story, as the “crime” and trial are sufficiently compelling without resorting to lowest common denominator, shock-and-awe, surprise ending tactics. I’m sure there is some entertainment value to be had in the way she wraps things up, but it’s unfortunate that she chose this route instead of letting the book rest on its one strength. That is to say, if you’ve ever thought you were above bigotry, that racism was over, that you would see hate when it comes walking toward you, this book will make you think otherwise. For forcing her readers to chew on that, I applaud Picoult’s efforts.