Finish this sentence: I AM ___________.
If you are white, you probably didn't write that. “Why not? Because it’s a given. It’s identity that is taken for granted,” the defense attorney not only states to the jury in Jodi Picoult’s latest novel Small Great Things but to readers considering a verdict about themselves.
It’s been years since I’ve read a Picoult novel, the favorite being My Sisters Keeper with an ending so surprising, I alarmed my family with sudden sobs. But over the holidays I picked up Picoult’s recent bestseller Small Great Things because it’s timely. Like many Americans, I don’t like where we are in race relations, or where we have been, or that we’ve made disturbingly little progress; but I want hope for change.
Small Great Things is based on a true story about a nurse in a tough situation. Ruth Jefferson, a skilled labor and delivery nurse with 20 years of experience, is the best there is. Nevertheless, because she is black, Turk and Brittany, white supremacists, demand she not touch Davis, their newborn. The next day, Ruth is the only one left to watch Davis when he goes into cardiac distress and is charged with his murder. Can the truth set Ruth free? The story is told in first person multiple perspective, getting into the heads of Ruth, Turk, and Kennedy McQuarrie, Ruth’s defense attorney.
Author Jodi Piocoult has published 23 novels (roughly one a year since 1992), the last eight debuting as #1 on NYT Best Sellers list. Some readers find Picoult’s stories formulaic. I remember going through a stack of her books while in the tub, noting the multiple first person perspectives, social issue, secondary characters’ romance, and skim reading for the formulaic twist at the end. The cold bath water and repetition dissuaded me from much further reading. Until now.
What better book to kick off 2017 than one that addresses prejudice and race, demands conversations about equality vs. equity, and makes readers a little uncomfortable as they confront themselves. Picoult says this book taught her about herself. “I was exploring my past, my upbringing, my biases, and I was discovering that I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined.”
Perhaps Picoult’s growth mirrors that of Ruth’s white public defender Kennedy McQuarrie who tries to understand her client. “Like ghosts, white people move effortlessly through boundaries and borders. Like ghosts, we can be anywhere we want to be. I decide it’s time to feel the walls around me.” McQuarrie makes this revelation, “I don’t see color…and now it’s all I see.”
Picoult even questioned whether as a white woman, she had the right to paraphrase the words of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things that are great,” explaining, “Many in the African-American community are sensitive to white people using Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words to reflect their own experience, and with good reason. However, I also knew that both Ruth and Kennedy have moments in this novel where they do a small thing that has great and lasting repercussions for others.”
Indeed, the sacrifices these characters make challenge us to do the same. What small great things can we do? Picoult did it by writing a novel explaining, “the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know.” Now her novel needs to be read ---even if it makes us uncomfortable.
And that is why I appreciated this novel and chose it to be a Bellwether read-eemable. After all, the awkwardness of not knowing what to say or how to say it should not keep us from dialoguing, learning, growing and making changes.
And if you think radical change isn’t possible? In the course of Picoult’s research, unbelievably, she met a former skinhead who beat up a gay man. Later he worked at the Simon Weisenthal Center meeting the victim he had left for dead. Apologies, forgiveness and their unified effort educating others about hate crimes signal there could be hope for change.