Up Late with Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
I love reading Jodi Picoult’s books–they delve deeply into the subject matter at hand and often offer multiple perspectives to a situation (I briefly reviewed Leaving Time here two years ago.) Small Great Things is no exception. We see/hear/understand this story from three perspectives: Ruth, an African-American nurse; Turk, a white supremacist; and Kennedy, a white public defender. This novel tackles issues about race, but at first I was uneasy about Jodi Picoult writing about this–was it her story to tell? After reading the book, I think it was, because she approached her own racism as well as systemic racism.
Perhaps what I appreciated most was the author’s note at the back of the book (which I skipped to half way through the novel since I was curious), where Picoult writes: “I was writing to my own community–white people–who can very easily point to a Neo-Nazi and say he’s a racist…but who can’t recognize racism in themselves.” She goes on to talk about institutional power and how “it’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them.” As a white woman, I think it was an important reminder to me of the automatic privilege I have in our country–now more than ever.
I particularly enjoyed Ruth’s perspective, but I’m not a black woman, so I don’t know how accurately she was portrayed. However, I could relate to her as a woman and as someone who works hard and loves her job. Early in the novel, she shares: “It just goes to show you: every baby is born beautiful. It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.”
I appreciated when Ruth called Kennedy out on her priviledge, which reminded me of parts of Go Set a Watchman when Scout claims she doesn’t see color and her Uncle Jack takes her to task for that. Similarly, Ruth chastizes Kennedy: “You say you don’t see color…but that’s all you see. You’re so hyperaware of it, and of trying to look like you aren’t prejudiced, you can’t even understand that when you say race doesn’t matter all I hear is you dismissing what I’ve felt, what I’ve lived, what it’s like to be put down because of the color of my skin.”
I struggled with Turk’s portion of the novel, as parts were hateful and uncomfortable, but Picoult managed to help me see all people have origin stories, and many people turn to hate because they feel isolated and alone, and want someone to blame. I found myself struggling when reading his character’s perspective, but in the end, hoping for his redemption.
Finally, Kennedy’s character drove me crazy and gave me hope at the same time. I appreciated how she had to dig deep into her identity and her priviledge and how she was self-reflection. When she starts to think about the world she lives in, she wonders, “What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?” This metaphor exemplies Picoult’s writing style for me: original metaphors and relatable concepts to show how a character works through her ideas.
I read this in less than 24 hours, and have three people on a waiting list to borrow it–I highly recommend it for the story and the personal contemplation it may inspire.