This is a book about a black nurse being prohibited from treating the newborn son of a white supremacist, and when the baby dies, he accuses her of murdering his son.
I’ve never read a Jodi Picoult book before, because her books have always seemed like they were Issue Books, designed to be manipulative in a way that emphasizes the subject matter over the actual story and characters. That is Not My Thing. And really, after reading this book, I don’t think I was wrong. Small Great Things absolutely sacrifices character and plot integrity on the altar of getting its message across. The story was driven by the message, rather than the other way around. Characters are utilitarian. They have a Function. For me, that’s not the way I like to experience fiction. But I have a hard time condemning this book as a thing that exists, despite not doing what I think fiction should do, because I admire any effort to have a serious discussion about racism, especially an effort that might have a real effect on human minds in my country.
Picoult mentions in her long afterword that she’s been wanting to write about racism for many years but had a hard time finding the right story. She was especially concerned about writing from a place of privilege and not getting it right. She ended up using the real life story of a nurse in Flint, Michigan as a jumping off point for the character of Ruth and what happens to her, but she also writes from two other perspectives: that of the affluent white defense lawyer who takes Ruth’s case, and from the perspective of the white supremacist father of the dead baby Ruth is accused of killing. She says in the afterword that she could never write a book for black women specifically because of her identity, so she wrote this book for her existing audience of white women, with the goal of getting them to view racism in America with fresh eyes. Judging by reviews from POC friends, she did not entirely succeed in her efforts to portray POC characters (and black ones specifically) with complete accuracy, but as I am Very White, I can’t speak to that. I do understand Picoult’s impulse, and I think anyone has a right to write about the topic of racism, because it affects us all. I think everyone should talk about it constantly, and listen to as many different people’s experiences as possible. It’s not something that should be pushed under the rug. This book is Picoult’s attempt to pull it out into the light for white people. And I think she knew that she would come under intense scrutiny for it.
The only way I know how to judge this book is as a piece of literature, and in that respect, it falls somewhat flat. Picoult does well by her white characters, particularly the white supremacist. They both have arcs and change over the course of the narrative, even if these changes feel ultimately orchestrated to illustrate the many things Jodi Picoult learned about racism while writing this book. But Ruth, the nominal center of the book, whose experience is the catalyst for all the rest of it, doesn’t get the luxury of character growth. She’s there to be a sympathetic black woman whom white audiences can relate to and learn to understand, an intermediary of sorts. I liked her and I felt for her (I got so angry in places), but things happen to her, mostly, and she is the same person (for the most part) at the end as she was in the beginning (though perhaps a stronger one for having gone through so much). The one area I thought this book shone in was the courtroom scenes. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for that kind of thing, but I thought Picoult portrayed the nuances of the way that race has to be taken into account (or not, as may be the case) in a case like Ruth’s.
She also gave into her worst impulses at the end there, when a completely over the top plot twist ties up the legal case in a way that did not work for me at all, though I understand what Picoult was trying to accomplish. It just didn’t work. It was too melodramatic. And the problem with melodrama when dealing with a topic as heavy as this one is, is that it ultimately takes away the nuance. Racism shouldn’t be simplified. It complicates and tangles things, a thing which this book did a good job of portraying, until the end when Picoult decided that tangled didn’t feel good any more. If that even makes sense?
Ultimately, this book felt more like a tool for education than a story to me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish it could have been both. I don’t think I will be reading any more of her books.
(I will say, if you decide to read this, go for the audio. Audra McDonald voices Ruth’s sections, and she gives Very Good Audiobook.)