The latter third of this review of Small Great Things contains limited spoilers.
On Tuesday night, I finished reading the powerful and popular novel Small Great Things, which has been taking up a significant amount of my headspace since I first began it almost a week earlier. Thanks to how meticulously bestselling author Jodi Picoult got into the minds of three characters with markedly distinct perspectives on power, privilege and race, I found myself writing about their nuanced viewpoints in my private journal and repeatedly discussing those issues tackled by the novel in conversations with my husband. After reading the final pages, I admit being disappointed by what I felt was too tidy resolution–as I wrote about in my review of the book on Goodreads–but I couldn’t help wondering if I was being too critical of a novel that had nobly tackled such complex issues, while obviously striking such a deep chord in me.
Curious and willing to delve deeper into this dichotomy, I found a 2016 Q&A with The Oxford Union, in which Picoult spoke to the challenges of writing about racism in this country. Her first attempt to set this divisive issue at the heart of a novel was more than 20 years ago, when she sought to write about an African-American, undercover cop who had been shot several times in the back by white colleagues. She claims to have “failed miserably” in her initial effort at a novel, struggling to create voices, characters and situations that were authentic.
Picoult’s Personal POV on Prejudice, Privilege and Power
“And to be honest, I really questioned whether I even had the right to,” she recalled. “I am very clearly a white woman. I grew up in privilege. What was I going to contribute to a conversation about racism?”
Picoult has made a very successful career out of writing convincingly from an array of perspectives unique from her own. However, she felt that writing about race and racism was different. “It’s very hard for us to talk about without offending people, and so as a result, we often just don’t talk about it at all,” she explained. And yet her desire and willingness to write about it never really went away.
Then, in 2012, the novelist heard the news of an African American woman, a labor and delivery nurse of 20 years, who had delivered a baby in Flint, Mich. The baby’s father, sporting a swastika tattoo, demanded that the nurse supervisor ensure no African-American personnel touch his child. This became the seed for the story of protagonist Ruth Jefferson in Small Great Things.
In real life, the nurse sued the hospital and received an out-of-court settlement. But in Picoult’s novel, the nurse faces a different scenario: left alone with the baby when something goes wrong, she is forced to decide whether to follow her supervisor’s orders or to save the baby’s life. Because of her decision, she winds up on trial with “a white public defender who, like me, like a lot of my friends, would never consider herself to be racist,” said Picoult.
As a novelist, she then considered telling the story from three different points of view–the African-American nurse, the white public defender and the white supremacist father. The story would follow each of them as they unraveled their beliefs about power, privilege and race. Having changed her focus and her audience, she knew she would now be able to finish the book.
“I wasn’t writing a book to tell people of color what their lives were like. That’s never going to be my story to tell,” she explained. “I was writing to tell people who look like me–people with light skin–that, although it’s easy for us to point to a white supremacist and say, ‘oh that’s a racist,’ it’s very hard to point to ourselves and say the same thing.”
The author admits that it would have been unfair to ask readers to unpack their biases without first doing it herself. Born into a generation that was never formally educated in social justice, Picoult perceived herself–as does Kennedy, the book’s white public defender–as “a very liberal, open-minded person, with friends from all walks of life. I did not think of myself as a racist.” However, after gaining more education in racial justice, she realized that racism is not just about prejudice; it’s also about power. And in the United States, as the author said, “if you look like me, you have all the power.”
Boy, is that a powerful observation! I have even more respect for Picoult’s willingness to take on this huge conversation in a novel after hearing her talk about this revelation. She was not just able and willing to do the messy work of reflecting on her own perceptions; she was actually curious and eager to dig in deeper.
She spent more than 100 hours interviewing 10 women of color to gain insight into their varied experiences in an effort to write from a black woman’s perspective with empathy and sensitivity. To write from the white supremacist Turk’s perspective, a man who led a life grounded in hate, she also spent time with two former white supremacists who had formally left the Movement.
Nuanced Perspectives on Race and Racism is No Small Thing
Her research proved quite fruitful because Picoult was able to deftly delve into the complex backgrounds of Ruth, Kennedy and Turk in her novel. Her compassionate explorations of the experiences and motivations driving all the main characters in her novel worked to build a bridge of understanding–even engendering empathy–of people we readers might not necessarily like or agree with at all. While the ugliness of Turk’s beliefs and violent actions were off-putting, to say the very least, the genuine grief he expresses for having lost a son evoked real emotion from this reader.
Yes, the story was uncomfortable for me to read, at times–it had to be, especially when presenting the perspective of the white supremacist Turk. Picoult admitted that writing his voice and exploring his “disgusting” beliefs about non-white people made her feel “dirty”. Yet I too was curious to explore a viewpoint I’ve rejected with every fiber of my being, as it challenged my own perceptions.
As I wrote about in my journal, I absolutely related to the description of Ruth’s childhood experience of growing up as an ‘other’ in an overwhelmingly white community. As much as I felt a sense of belonging among my friends, there was an increasing sense of alienation and differentness in my community as I grew older. I did not really fit into stereotypical African American culture that I was occasionally exposed to either. Ruth had greater exposure, living in a black community in which her sister was thoroughly immersed, but she too mostly felt like an outsider there.
Like Ruth, I did my best to fit in with my white classmates as much as I was able, but there was no escaping the reality that I was, in fact, a little different. Some of my classmates were more than happy to point out it out often enough, especially in high school; their eagerness to bring up stereotypes about athletic and academic achievement stung more than I ever let on. So, gaining admission to one of the most competitive universities in the nation made me feel as if I’d won some type of challenge…it took several more years to realize that my most dangerous competitor was myself. As a young adult I spent a lot of time exploring, experimenting with and reflecting on my identity before coming to place of acceptance and love for my self. Yet I am still being forced to confront my own biases and misperceptions.
A Closer Look at Small Great Things
As she endures the trial for a crime she did not commit, Ruth comes to the painful realization that keeping a low profile–behaving as if her skin color is invisible to others–would not save her (or her son) from racial injustice. Picoult shared in the Q&A how a woman explained to her racial justice workshop how she went in the world “with a metaphorical mask so that she can be the kind of black woman other people can handle.” Ruth does this too for most of her life, but that changes when she challenges public defender Kennedy’s insistence that “a criminal lawsuit is no place to bring up race,” and that if you do, “you can’t win”. When Ruth is finally given the opportunity to speak in court, she understandably cannot keep her indignation from her testimony.
Brava to her. It is unfortunate, though, that she is portrayed as an “angry black woman” shooting herself in the foot. It is not surprising, however, that her own lawyer perceives it as such.
I did empathize with Kennedy’s struggle to understand how she still clung to her privilege, despite her good works and good intentions serving the underprivileged. I think her sole night spending time in an environment where she was a minority opened her eyes a little bit, but I found it difficult to swallow that such a brief and limited exposure would be enough to give her true clarity about being on the receiving end of racism.
As part of her experiment, she enters a drugstore to look at hair products “foreign” to her. She thinks: I have no idea what they do, why they’re necessary for black people, or how to use them. Instead of settling into her ignorance, I couldn’t help wondering why she does not attempt to find out from some women who do use them–you know, women like her client Ruth.
It also rubbed me the wrong way how she is the one relentlessly tearing into Ruth’s son Edison when he misguidedly spray paints racial slurs on a wall (I get that he’s a kid who is terrified of his mom getting convicted of murder, but why on earth does he do this?) And it also got under my skin that white lawyer Kennedy was the one correcting black defendant Ruth that what she really needs is not equality, but equity. I appreciated the intent behind explaining the differences between equity and equality, but her speech comes across like she is reading from a textbook:
“Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed.” I look at her. “The first one sounds fair. The second one is fair. It’s equal to give a printed test to two kids. But if one’s blind and one’s sighted, that’s not true. You ought to give one a Braille test and one a printed test, which both cover the same material. All this time, I’ve been giving the jury a print test, because I didn’t realize that they’re blind. That I was blind. Please, Ruth. I think you’ll like hearing what I have to say.”
Kennedy does ultimately rise to the occasion by talking about active and passive racism, bias, privilege and power in her closing statement in court. Ruth expresses gratitude that her lawyer finally took “the elephant in the room and paraded it in front of the judge.” I couldn’t help feeling uneasy that this speech alone had the ultimate power that it did, but giving it was the right thing for Kennedy to do. She uses her power and privilege to amplify Ruth’s own voice.
I was also rather amazed (not in a good way) by the plot twist that wraps up Turk’s story. It felt far too tidy and trite. I won’t get into it in detail here–it was that disappointing, to me. What I will do is give Picoult great praise for her overall effort to bring these voices and perspectives to life.
Novels as Catalysts For Critical Social Dialogue
It is no small thing to tackle such thorny issues as race, privilege and power. For a significant part of this novel, I think Picoult writes about it surprisingly well and with incredible insight. By packaging complex issues in a palatable and relatable enough manner, she presents an invitation for many folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise participate in a conversation about race with true transparency and authenticity to enter in honest dialogue about the perspectives raised in this fictionalized tale.
In this way, the novel serves as a catalyst for the crucial dialogue that our mucked-up society needs to have to survive. Rather than silencing the perspectives that we don’t like or disagree with or that simply make us uncomfortable, we need to get real and honest, truly listening to each other. By writing from these three disparate viewpoints, Picoult’s writing encourages to do just that. And, as she alludes to in Kennedy and Ruth’s discussion about equity, we as a society need to do everything we can to ensure that each of us gets a place at the table, that every voice gets the opportunity be heard and the support to speak up when it wants and needs to. It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to truly move forward and evolve together.