“I’m surrounded by the stories that have blazed through the media but have mostly been ignored by courts of law. The stories of Tamir Rice, of Michael Brown, of Trayvon Martin, Of Eric Garner and Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. Of Sandra Bland and John Crawford III…” – Kennedy, Small Great Things.
When a newborn baby dies after a routine hospital procedure, there is no doubt about who will be held responsible: the nurse who had been banned from looking after him by his father.
What the nurse, her lawyer and the father of the child cannot know is how this death will irrevocably change all of their lives, in ways both expected and not.
Small Great Things is about prejudice and power; it is about that which divides and unites us.
It is about opening your eyes.
And we’re back with another book review!
I’ve been waiting to do this one. In all honesty, something in my gut told me to hold off on reviewing it even though it’s one of my favourite books of all time.
Trust me, it’s extremely hard to make this list.
I even did my dissertation on it, which was interesting because I saw it in a whole new light.
I figured that now as everyone is discussing how important the NHS is – even though it’s always been incredibly significant – I could bring up this book.
This blog post will be about privilege. The unfairness and ignorance of it.
The first thing that is glaringly obvious and I will address straight away is that although this is book about the black experience, the author, Jodi Picoult, is white.
Which leads to a whole round of questioning, starting with the first obvious question:
How would she even know how to write about something she’s never experienced?
And I completely 100% agree. It’s what I discussed in great detail for my dissertation.
But to me, she did it well, surprisingly well. And it wasn’t a whitewashed novel – that was made palatable for her predominantly white audience. It was as raw and honest as it needed to be. She says that she did a lot of research and audience leading up to this novel and I can tell. The amount of detail is incredible. Her writing style was beautiful and the pace of the book was perfect. I could tell this was a novel that had an incredible amount of time put into it.
Now before I begin to discuss the plot, I have to address the title. For ages, it bugged me and I kept questioning why the title seemed so familiar? But I never actually looked into it until much later.
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” – Martin Luther King
Quite simply, this is Jodi Picoult’s way of speaking about an issue that is everywhere but most people her colour tend to overlook. Yes, it is only a book – and in the grand scheme of things can be considered ‘small’ in regards to marches or protests. But I have to emphasise that it is her ‘small thing in a great way’, she knows her audience are people that look exactly like her. She’s not addressing the black community with her work. She’s raising awareness for them.
It’s her stamp in the Black Lives Matter movement – whilst accepting that she is also part of the problem.
Because I did my dissertation on this book, I can’t even begin to express how much there is to unpack…the pressure nurses are put under, the power of the Ideological State in expressing racist views, the privilege of ignorance…I could go on. Quite frankly, it would probably be another dissertation.
But because of the current climate we are on in now. I desperately want to talk about the importance of everyone working within the health care system. Now this novel is set in the US and I’m aware that their health care system is very different to the UK. However, you can tell Ruth loves her job as a midwife and despite what happens to her, she takes it very seriously. It broke my heart in certain places because quite simply, her workplace just didn’t appreciate her. Even the way Turk dismissed her, he saw her as easily replaceable. And it isn’t as simple as that. Every single person working day and night, long shifts for days on end, are as equally important – if not more – than those we give power to.
Quite simply, we rely on them. We take them for granted. They aren’t given the recognition they deserve.
Ruth was evidence of that. She worked hard. She never stepped out of line. She cared for every mother that entered her ward and gave them the best treatment possible. She got to know them for who they were. So, for Turk to demand that she shouldn’t do her job because he was uncomfortable with the colour of her skin – something she can’t change, was beyond frustrating.
It was unforgivable.
Turk took away Ruth’s livelihood – in fact he tried to destroy her life. The colour of his skin gave him the privilege and the power to do so. So it didn’t matter what light Picoult tried to paint him in, even after she explained how he became a white supremacist. I could not forgive him. I tried. Believe me, I wanted to feel sympathy for him.
But I couldn’t.
So not only is Ruth overlooked and ignored as a nurse but she also hopes that her profession will outrank the stereotypes given to her by the colour of her skin.
Ruth wasn’t a perfect character. She was annoying at times. She did her best to assimilate into someone that would be accepted by society but when it came down to it, her colour was the deciding factor. She tried to have the privilege of ignorance but she couldn’t. And it was sad to read as her life came crumbling down around her.
When you think about it, it’s unfair that we don’t get that privilege. We can’t ignore issues of racism around us because it’s about us. It doesn’t matter how much you want to pretend it doesn’t exist. You can look in the mirror and just see a person but someone will point out that you are also black.
And I guess then the question is…how much power do we give to colour? The answer is we shouldn’t give any power to it. Quite simply, we should just ignore it.
But when it’s constantly chucked in our face, it’s quite hard not to.
Which Ruth learnt the hard way.
I can’t not talk about Kennedy, Ruth’s white lawyer. At first, I thought Picoult wrote this novel with people like Turk in mind. But I quickly realised that this book was for all the Kennedy’s out there that acknowledge racism but choose to overlook it because it doesn’t affect them.
Her issue was with the privilege of ignorance.
Kennedy relationship with Ruth ignited a fire to do the right thing. She began to speak up for issues that didn’t affect her, simply because she could. She had the position of power to do so – as a lawyer.
Yes, this novel has the ‘White Saviour Narrative’ embodied within the text. I even questioned how I could like it.
But, I think I liked how she established that she only adheres to racism by ignoring it. I like how she accepted her place in society than tried to help those less fortunate than her but with a clearer understanding of how they may feel. She was clearly on a journey to self-discovery too but it was her acknowledgement of the issues in society that made me like her.
And in a way, she parallels exactly what Picoult is doing by writing this novel.
It was strange because normally when I read a novel, it’s obvious which character the author identifies the most with. More often than not it’s the main protagonist.
And although, Ruth was seemingly the main protagonist despite being three perspectives.
I could see that Kennedy was Picoult’s inner thoughts and feelings on the issues of racism.
Now don’t get me wrong, Picoult’s thoughts and feelings came out through her portrayal of the black characters. In fact, it was probably my biggest issue with the book. Then I realised that either she knew what she was doing and did it deliberately to make it more understandable to her audience. Or she simply didn’t realise what she was doing.
Picoult’s portrayal of the black characters were reminiscent of the four main stereotypes given to black women proposed and recycled by the media: The Mammy, The Matriarch, The Welfare Mother and The Jezebel.
Adisa (Ruth’s sister) = The Welfare Mother
Ruth’s Mum = The Mammy
The only person I couldn’t figure out was Ruth – but I’ll leave that up to your interpretation.
It frustrated me at times but then, I realised that Picoult wouldn’t be able to understand the black culture because she hasn’t lived it. If I was her, I’d also turn to the media. The issue is here is that these old-fashioned stereotypes were fabricated by the media and consequently, it’s bound to come out in her work.
She’s simply a victim of the system too.
Or if she did her research, she realised that these stereotypes would be the only way to get through to her predominantly white audience, knowing they may not know much else about black culture other than what they see in the media.
So she’s a genius.
Either way, she definitely got her point across.
This is a book that falls firmly into the social justice movement. A book I’ll probably force my kids to read because it raises some important questions.
In all honesty, I’m yet to find a book that is similar in any way to this novel.
I loved it.
Because its raw honesty shows a black woman who soon finds her voice and doesn’t accept assimilation anymore.
A white woman who realises that by doing nothing, she’s also contributing to the problem
And a white supremacist male, who realises that hate and violence will achieve nothing.
All three characters sit at different ends of the spectrum. Literally.
But, it was a book about finding out who you are and that being ignorant won’t fix this broken world.
It was a book that comes back to that important message when it comes to the ending of racism… that love will always outrank hate
Both messages that will transcend time.