Small Great Things
Bestseller Jodi Picoult’s new novel Small Great Things is based on a true-life story. In Flint, Michigan, a white supremacist father refused to let an African-American nurse touch his baby. African-American hospital staff sued for discrimination and won. In Picoult’s fictional version, however, that one action quickly spirals into tragedy.
Ruth is a labour and delivery nurse who has built a hard-won life for herself in a predominantly white neighbourhood. Then skinhead Turk and his wife, Brit, enter the ward to give birth. They order that Ruth not touch their newborn son. When the baby goes into cardiac arrest Ruth hesitates – he dies and she is charged with negligent homicide.
The baby is a metaphor for perfection, a being not yet tarnished by society. In Ruth’s eyes that tarnishing will come through the insidious grip of racism, which defines much of her life. In Turk’s it is that the world is not white enough. “Right now, my baby is perfect,” he says. “But from the moment it arrives, it’s bound to be tainted.”
Morphing into a courtroom drama, Small Great Things is told through three voices: Ruth, Turk, and Ruth’s lawyer, Kennedy. Kennedy is white, educated and well meaning, but unaware of her own internal prejudices. She is, in fact, a stand-in for Picoult and her readers. “I was writing to my own community,” states Picoult in an extensive author’s note, “… who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s a racist… but who can’t recognise racism in themselves.”
Picoult faces that reality head-on, even if the truth is confronting (“I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined”). But in founding her novel on issues, however important, she has created a laborious, overly earnest read. Heavy-handed prose delivers a checklist of societal ills. Characters, too, are little more than vehicles for political beliefs. While Turk is sympathetic in parts (he is a loving husband and father), he speaks in oddly academic sentences, which is at odds with messy reality. An unbelievable twist and saccharine epiphanies for all involved do not help.
Martin Luther King jnr, once said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” With Small Great Things Picoult is to be commended for tackling one of America’s most fundamental problems. But it is a shame that the novel is neither as gripping nor profound as it should be. EA
Allen & Unwin, 480, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "Jodi Picoult, Small Great Things". Subscribe here.