Firstly let me say that I LOVE Jodi Picoult books – I have never found one that I didn’t enjoy; there have been some that I have enjoyed more than others, and there have been some characters that I have identified with more than others, but I have been totally enthralled by each one. Jodi has a knack of really hitting home. She is not afraid of taking on delicate and often controversial issues, and handling them sensitively and honestly reaching deep and pulling out every strand of humanity and emotion. She is a natural storyteller who challenges her readers, makes them sit up straight and pause for thought.
“Small Great Things” dropped through my letter box in November, I had pre-ordered it months in advance and waited for it with much anticipation. It waited patiently on my coffee table until I could dedicate the time it deserved – Jodi’s books are heavy investment… not in cost, but in time and emotion. I have never read one that has not distracted me completely from everyday life. There is no point in starting until I have a whole clear day or two to just go for it – I know from experience that it is not possible to put them down, and efforts to fit normal life in around them are futile. Each one has wrung emotion from me, tears, laughter, terror, hope, despair… and has filled my thoughts for days afterwards.
Ms Picoult takes the people that we all see, meet and speak to in our everyday life and turns them into the central characters in her novels; she has an ability to portray each character that she creates as a unique entity, there is no cross over, there is no mistaken identity; each has their own story, their own perspective and their own destination. They say that you cannot experience life until you have walked in another person’s shoes… Jodi must have worn more shoes belonging to other people than she ever has her own. It doesn’t matter who the character is, what their situation, cultural background, religion, age, history, Ms Picoult can see the world through their eyes and brings them to life with humanity, empathy, honesty and an abundance of stories.
This is the first time that I opened a Jodi book hesitantly.
There have been so many reviews and comments about this book, it has been lauded as the new ‘To Kill A Mockingbird‘ by critics, ‘an absolute must read’, ‘should be required reading’… and so on. This is great. I am so pleased that Jodi is being so appreciated – she really deserves it. What concerned me is that quite often where there is so much hype and applause, reality doesn’t always meet expectation- this happened to me with “Girl on a Train“, and even “To Kill A Mockingbird” itself, which although a good read, and a ground breaking book, will never make it onto my list of favourites. I was so desperate for “Small Great Things” to live up to expectation that if anyone other than Jodi had written it, it would probably have resided on my shelf for a few months more until the furore had died down, but having left it a couple of months I really couldn’t wait much longer. I should not have worried!
I don’t want to give too much away if you haven’t already read this wonderful book, but just to set the scene, Ruth Jefferson is a mid-wife, she has been a mid-wife with a clean record for around twenty years and she is on top of her game. During her routine she is asked to check on a newborn baby – a normal enough task, however, the baby’s parents are white supremacists; Ruth is African-American. At the parents request, Ruth is unceremoniously removed from the case, and she complies. The following day, when the baby unexpectedly goes into cardiac arrest, Ruth is the only person in the room. What should she do? The parents have explicitly forbidden her to touch their child, but as a medic, she is under oath to do everything she can to preserve life. After a little hesitation, Ruth performs CPR, but the baby dies, and Ruth is charged with serious crime.
Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender takes on Ruth’s case, but advises Ruth not to mention race in the courtroom – this will not, she says, help to win the case. As the case escalates and becomes a media circus, Ruth struggles to maintain a semblance of normal life for her son, whilst trying to clear her name. As Ruth and Kennedy learn to trust each other and break down barriers they are forced to address their own perspectives of the world and the people around them – they begin to challenge what they believed to be true.
In “Small Great Things” Ms Picoult confronts prejudice, privilege, social and moral obligation and so many other issues head-on. She is empathetic but honest, nothing is sugar coated, but nor is it dramatised; this is real life not a soap opera; it is at times an uncomfortable read, forcing the reader (whoever they are) to look from a different angle to their natural perspective, but this is what Picoult does best! What really struck me as I was reading the book was a comment from Kennedy:
“I don’t think about being white. I told you the first time we sat down – I don’t see color” – page 238
What really hit me was that we live in such a colourful world – a world where colour is used to describe pretty much everything, a red coat, blue sky, purple shoes…. in Steven Spielberg’s epic film, “Schindler’s List” the image that stayed with everyone who watched it was the tiny girl in her red coat – the only flash of colour in the film, yet, in order to be politically correct and create a world of equality we are deliberately blinding ourselves to the colour of other people. What Kennedy is trying to say is that she doesn’t let people’s colour affect her judgement. In reality her refusal to see Ruth’s colour means that she struggles to see where Ruth is coming from, the battles she has had to fight, the barriers she has come up against, the experiences that have shaped her life, and this casts a cloud over the case – she feels that the case is not race related; Ruth firmly believes it is.
I have recommended this book to so many people. Personally, I found it a lot easier to read than “To Kill a Mockingbird” – as a fan of Jodi Picoult’s writing anyway, it was easy just to slip into the book, an already familiar writing style, challenging, questioning and to the point! I think it is every bit as relevant as “Mockingbird”, and I really wish it could have been on my reading list when I was at school – I think it is a book that would fit perfectly into so many subject area’s, Literature, Citizenship, Ethics….
I finished “Small Great Things” maybe three months ago, and it has taken me this long to process my thoughts. When I finished reading the book, if anyone would have asked me if this was my favourite Picoult book I would probably have said no. I would have been hard pressed to choose between “Plain Truth” and “Leaving Time“; now however, I think it might be. There hasn’t been a day when “Small Great Things” has not popped into my head in some way – driving home and seeing a sunset; how is it ok to see the vibrant oranges and reds and value them for the way they shape our day, make our journey that bit brighter but it’s not ok to see and appreciate beauty of someone’s skin tone? People should not be defined by physicalities, it is absolutely what is inside that counts, but when, in our quest to create absolute equality, do we go too far and in trying to do the right thing, actually cause inequality? When does political correctness become very incorrect? How in a world where every single person is very very different, is it possible, or fair, to try to treat everyone the same? Everybody is not the same; actually, no one is the same as someone else, even identical twins do not share exactly the same experiences; everybody has their own story, influencing factors that have shaped the way they see their world, and these differences need to be taken into account – when there are so many shades, tones and hues, black and white is not an option.
There are quotes from other writers peppered throughout the book, used to break up sections so the story; my favourite is the one by Maria Christina Mena, pictured above. I think this sums up how I feel about “Small Great Things“. It is a long time since a book has had such a profound affect on my thoughts, in fact I think this might be up there with “Pollyanna“and her Glad Game; I know it is going to stay with me for a long time and I am glad of it. I am pleased that I waited to read it as it truly deserved the dedicated time and thought.