I know that it has been a while since I’ve sat down to write a book review. It has been a while since I’ve been able to sit and finish a book. I’d like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts and reflections on a recent novel that I finished, as well as some current events. I was given a book as a Christmas present by my husband because he recognized the author’s name as someone whose novels I’ve enjoyed in the past. “Small Great Things” sat on the shelf for a while thanks to the business of life and I didn’t pick it up until our vacation in early July. I finished it rather quickly, as I have with all of Jodi Picoult’s books, but I wasn’t sure that I could actually say that I enjoyed it.
Picoult writes gripping novels that create fiction from current social issues and weaves a story through use of first person narrative of multiple relatable characters. Through her writing style, she has a way of sharing the humanity that exists in very difficult situations. I’ve finished many of her books with tears in my eyes and have always had a hard time putting them down. In that sense, “Small Great Things” was no different but this time she attempted to address racism in modern America.
“Small Great Things” approaches modern day racism with a fictional story of a black L&D nurse who is removed from the care of an infant whose parents are uncomfortable with her race. There is a bad outcome and the novel focuses on the impact of the subsequent courtroom drama from the perspectives of several characters: Ruth Jefferson – the L&D nurse, Kennedy – the white public defender with the ‘perfect’ life assigned to Ruth’s case, and Turk Bauer – the infant’s father who has repulsive ideology of white supremacy but is well portrayed as a flawed human acting out of supreme love for his wife and child.
This time her novel hit close enough to home that it made me uncomfortable as I was reading it. Uncomfortable as I was forced to recognize my own shortcomings. I believe that I am a good person and I know that I am not perfect, but this book made me realize that my effort to treat everyone with the same level of respect regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other stereotypical label that might apply, is not enough. As I was reading this book, I needed to acknowledge to myself that I am guilty of the white privilege that is part of my life and how my own failure to recognize that privilege may be hurting others.
The recent events in Charlottesville reignited the discomfort that “Small Great Things” had stirred in my soul. As I’ve aged, I try to take the opportunities that present themselves when faced with my imperfect humanness as a chance to learn, grow and make the world a better place for my children. I have to admit, that my first thought when I learned about the rallies planned in Charlottesville was a selfish one – I moved to Southwestern Virginia two years ago and I work in Lexington. The hospital where I spend the bulk of my clinical time is named ‘Stonewall Jackson Hospital’ and a large portion of our population attend nearby Washington and Lee University. I am surrounded by the memorialization of those whose statues were the center of the conflict in Charlottesville. My first thought was “when will this happen where I am?” followed closely by “I hope I’m not scheduled to work when it does.” I am somewhat ashamed of my initial selfish instinct but I have since used it to reach out to people unlike me and to discuss these events from their perspective. I have used it as an opportunity to educate my girls. I have not shied away from it and answered their questions as honestly (and age-appropriately) as I can. I have used it as an opportunity to educate myself further than my 7th grade history class on the Civil War and its players. I have been more aware of my unconscious abuse of my white privilege.
I still cannot say whether I enjoyed “Small Great Things” but I humbly encourage you to check it out from your local library or pick it up at the FemInEm bookstore. It is well written and a quick read because you likely have some similar experiences and will relate to the characters. It is worth the time investment to take stock of your gut reactions to the issues raised in the novel – especially with the background of our current reality. I believe that hate and racism have always existed, and likely always will to an extent, but it is our job to keep shining a light and having hard conversations. As our friend Esther Choo, MD so brilliantly tweeted, “it’s a hell of a hard thing to maintain that level of hate face-to-face.”