Small, Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Oh, Jodi Picoult! The author of "women's" fiction that some love to hate. Prolific, issues-driven, and earnest, every Picoult novel is a small exploration of some aspect of society, often with a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Her emphasis on family, relationships, and feelings has been used by some supposedly "serious" authors to imply that what she writes is not "true literature". I think those literary snobs should take a long walk off a short pier, but it doesn't mean they don't have a point. Picoult makes sincere attempts to represent all sides of a topic, in ways that are thought-provoking and meant to encourage understanding and growth. Often those attempts work (My Sister's Keeper, Salem Falls, Plain Truth), and sometimes, well...

Small, Great Things is Picoult's BOOK ABOUT RACISM.  Just like she has books about SEXUAL ASSAULT and RELIGION and MOTHERHOOD and SCHOOL SHOOTINGS. Small, Great Things is about a black OB nurse who is caring for the newborn of a white supremacist couple, who promptly insist that she not ever touch their son again. When the infant has a medical emergency while she is alone in the room with him, she hesitates to provide the life-saving care, and the boy dies. The white supremacists promptly demand her arrest, and legal mayhem ensues. The book is told from the alternating perspectives of the nurse, her white lawyer, and the white supremacist dad. I found all of them problematic as characters.

I'm going to just come clean now and say I did not finish the book. I got not quite half-way through and had to put it down. I also want to say up front that I appreciate what Picoult was trying to do by offering this story, and I was glad to see from the afterword that the book is well-researched, as are all of her books. But research is not a substitute for actual experiential knowledge and relationships, and it seems like Picoult could have benefitted from both before writing the novel. Her main character, Ruth, is a black woman who has done everything "right" to try to fit into "white" society. She doesn't see it that way, of course. She worked hard, got a good education, is always professional, and tries not to make waves in her predominately white workplace. Her sister, portrayed as the stereotypical "angry black woman", thinks she's a sell-out, and appears to be proven correct when Ruth's white employers and colleagues throw her under the bus once she is charged. But the way both she and her sister are portrayed leads me to believe that maybe Picoult doesn't actually know any black women, at least not well enough to realize how stereotypical her characters really are. Neither one of them felt authentic to me; they felt like shallow caricatures of real people. This is often a problem when an author tries to make one character represent an entire, diverse group of people. The truth is that issues of assimilation, respectability policing, classism, and interracial friendships are way more complex than they appear to be from this narrative.

The white lawyer was also problematic for me. She is clearly the character Picoult herself most identified with, and felt the most true-to-life. But by making the lawyer's transformation to "woke" status so central to the narrative, it felt like once again centering the experiences of white folks in regards to racism, rather than creating a more nuanced representation of the black experience.

What finally caused me to close the book for good, though, were the chapters written from the point of view of the white supremacist. As a white woman married to a black woman, I have a slough of black in-laws, nieces, and nephews. It was just too painful for me to read the chapters describing the man's experiences in the white nationalist movement, knowing that those people exist in the same world as my precious family. I know there is a benefit to us as a society by exploring white hate groups; you can't fight what you don't understand. But to be honest, I was not at all interested in reading the justifications for hatred and racial violence that made up the early chapters of this character's narrative. He seemed to be portrayed as some hapless dupe who fell into the movement due to a troubled past, and while that may be true of some who make up the white nationalist movement, the truth is that the leadership is invested in fomenting racial tension to manipulate their followers for their own enrichment and power. I could not find it in myself to see the man as a sympathetic character. Maybe that's my own character flaw, but there it is.

All of those criticisms aside, I know that Picoult was trying in her slightly inept way to bring light to important societal issues. I will probably read more of her books. I am a believer that a clumsy attempt at doing the right thing is better than no attempt at all. I just hope that Picoult continues to learn about the experiences of people of color in America, preferably by building relationships and listening to black voices, and comes to a more nuanced understanding than is evident here. 


  1. I wish you would have finished the book. The twist at the end had some redeeming value. Shed a lot of light on "who" a person could love. Also, that people CAN change.
    Just came across your blog. Your reviews are fabulous!!
    Thanks, Leisa

    1. Thanks for your comment! I did learn about the "big reveal" when we discussed the book at book club, which did make me feel a little better about it than I did previously. It reminded me of the short story Desiree's Baby, which had a similar sort of secret. Thanks for reading!

  2. I'm rereading this one right now for my book group (audio this time). I loved it the first time, except Turk, the White Supremacist. The lawyer bugged me at times as well but overall I'm going to be very excited to discuss this book with my group. Sorry u couldn't finish it, but I understand.

    1. My book club had a really good discussion about it, one of the longer ones we've had in a while, and it did make some people think about race in new ways. I suppose anythings that helps people move forward along the path of anti-racism is good, even if it didn't work for me.


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