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Small Great Things

March 9, 2017

“Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed.”
― Jodi Picoult, Small Great Things

 

4****

Anyone who has read any of Picoult's books knows that she is far from miserly when it comes using metaphors and similes, and that she wouldn't shy from the odd cliche either. Despite this and the somewhat formulaic quality of her books (it clearly works, why fix something that is not broken, after all) they are just incredibly readable!

Small Great Things feels quite timely, and deals with the trial of a black nurse, Ruth, who is forbidden from touching the child of a white supremacist couple. This sets off a number of events, which expose some troubling truths in society and in the characters in this story. Picoult is good at creating characters and engaging stories, and she has done it again here. The story is told thought the voices of Ruth, Kennedy, Ruth's lawyer, and Turk, the white supremacist father of the baby. I am a big fan of books told through multiple POVs, and Picoult always does this quite well. The book is long, but it unfolds nicely, and really makes the reader confront certain ideas, especially ones about race and gender, so much in the forefront of the news in recent times. Ruth's trial is based on someone's prejudice against her race, and has little to do, in truth, with her competence as a nurse. Her lawyer, Kennedy, thinks it is a mistake to bring up race during the trial, and while Ruth opposes this, she is so helpless in the situation, she goes along with it. Kennedy means well, and is, I think, like many of us who have grown up with the privilege of being white and who consider themselves fair, unbiased and certainly not racist. Picoult uses this character to remind us that there is a difference between overt racism (like that which Turk exhibits without shame) and a sort of ignorant racism, where you think everything is fine because you yourself treat everyone equally, but do not question inherent societal inequality (accepting that there is only one minority employee in an office, without challenging it; accepting that a coworker makes a racist comment and not calling them out on it).

The ending is, in Picoult fashion, a little too tidy, though not as predictable as some others, and still satisfying. I won't spoil it for anyone, but I did feel it was a little idealistic, because fact is, some people will never change, they will see no problem in their prejudices, and never question their hatred. But it is true, too, that some people do, and I liked that Picoult used children as a sort of foil around the issue. Part of the book is based on a true story, which I find both fascinating at tragic, and I commend Picoult for writing it. She must have known she would open herself up for criticism - a white, wealthy woman writing about racism, and that takes some bravery. So I admire her for that, and whatever issues I had with the story, I think it was important for her to write it, and ultimately, valuable for me to read it and examine how I think about this subject on a level I hadn't considered so deeply before.

My own background is mixed. My father is from India with a Persian background and my mother is German. While I do not share her light hair, I do share her lighter skin tone and because of my slight accent, have been asked whether I am French, Italian, English, rarely anything but European, thus avoiding the prejudices in modern society associated with the part of the world my father's family comes from. I grew up in a village in Germany, where I was able to play outside without more than very vague anxiety about avoiding men in strange cars with candy. I grew up with a supportive family, with books and holidays and a mother who stayed at home with my sisters and me and a father who brought us back Barbies from his business trips. I was taught the police are there to help me, "Die Polizei - dein Freund und Helfer" was a German saying present in my ears and translates, "The Police, your friend and helper", so the idea that the police would ever be cruel or unfair was foreign to me as a child. When I moved to America, I went to a school where I could count the number of African American children on both hands, something that only changed when I got to college, where there was a much better balance. As a child, I never thought about it, but looking back now, I do. When my little sister went to the same school, a woman in our neighborhood wanted to bar children from the less affluent neighborhood bordering on our school district - a neighborhood with a large number of African American families - from attending that particular school. Kids at the school staged a walk-out in protest, her suggested ban didn't happen. But at that stage, I was old enough to recognize racism when I saw it, and self-righteously told myself the woman demanding this ban was vile and awful, and then I moved on and forgot about it again. I knew I treated people kindly and with respect and that mattered more to me than some racist soccer mom's opinion. And yet, when I read books like Small Great Things, I think how much of this race-related antipathy simmers beneath the surface, and I just haven't thought of digging deep enough to see it properly? I have always been very aware of how I treated people, my family taught me that kindness was valuable, to treat others the way I wish to be treated, and I have always taken that to heart, but maybe Picoult is right in pointing out that even people who behave as I try to, display some form of prejudicial behavior simply by taking the very privilege our appearance affords us for granted.

For a book I rated four stars, I had not expected this review to take me where it did, but there you go...:-) I want to end this ramble by saying it is worth reading this book, but even if you don't, it is worth thinking about how you view people who are not, on the surface, like you. It certainly has me asking myself those questions, and hoping the answers will not disappoint.

 

 

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