'Small Great Things' is an amazing but hard-to-swallow read.
By Jyllian Roach
There are lots of reasons a reviewer chooses to write about one book over another. Sometimes it’s the cover art, or the lure of a well-known author’s name. Other times it’s simply that it’s conveniently located on the top of a stack. Most of the time though, we choose them based on the description.
And it was the description of Jodi Picoult’s newest novel, “Small Great Things,” that convinced me to give this title a shot when I found out at the last minute that I had to whip something up.
According to the blurb, the book is about a nurse who is accused of murder. Thankfully, this grossly simplified the contents of the novel. I say thankfully because, if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have chosen this book to read when I had only two days to do so.
“Small Great Things” is not a light read. It’s a story that takes careful aim and punches you in the gut over and over again. And it’s certainly not a story about a nurse who is accused of murder.
The chapters rotate from the first person perspective of three characters:
Ruth, a light-skinned Black nurse who has spent her entire life doing her best to conform to the status quo. Her speech is careful, her hair straightened and her education impeccable.
Kennedy, a white, upper-middle class (thanks to her husband’s career) public defense attorney.
And then there’s Turk, the white supremacist father of a dead child. A child who died in Ruth’s care.
While none of these characters are stereotypical, they are definitely composites of people we’ve all met. Of ourselves. So much so that throughout the book, there was something like a mantra in my head: I’ve done that. I’ve seen that. Oh man, I’ve said that.
Which is why, when I realized as early as the end of the first chapter that this was a heavier book than the description led me to believe, I panicked a little. Was it OK for me, a Caucasian reviewer, to pass judgment on this piece of work?
For that matter, who was Jodi Picoult, a Caucasian author, to write on this subject? For the answer to that question, I went to Picoult’s website.
“I wasn’t writing it to tell people of color what their own lives were like. I was writing to my own community – white people – who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s a racist … but who can’t recognize racism in themselves,” Picoult wrote.
In that single quote, Picoult bares the heart of “Small Great Things.” The greatest privilege the white community – my community – has is the privilege of never even having to know we’re privileged.
I have two bachelor’s degrees, one in journalism and one in sociology. I’ve read essays on privilege and racism, I’ve taken classes on the subjects and participated in extremely difficult discussions. None of that educated me anywhere near as well on the direct correlation between privilege and race as reading this book did.
Like most, I know a white power tattoo when I see one. I can spot and have spoken up about outwardly racist actions and speech. However, I had not been aware that overcompensation could be just as harmful. Like claiming not to see color, or acting as a champion, rather than playing a supportive role when a person of color faces racism.
And that’s what happens throughout “Small Great Things.” Turk, with his white supremacist beliefs, is constantly trying to drown out Ruth’s voice; at the same time, Kennedy, with her well-intended but naive social justice beliefs, is doing the exact same thing.
“Small Great Things” is a page-turner. It’s beautifully crafted and absolutely stunning. But it will also hurt. Because Picoult does an excellent job of peeling away the layers of privilege and showing exactly how blind the racial majority truly is.
“Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult will be available nationwide on Oct. 11.
Jyllian Roach is the arts and entertainment editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org