Small but Not-So-Great: A Review of Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things”

Originally published on ReducedPulp.Com

Overall rating: 3.5/5

Jodi Picoult is known for nuanced storylines that weigh the personal against the moral and the legal, and for effortlessly weaving multiple storylines together that leave you feeling almost out of breath by the end of the book. Her newest release, however, falls unfortunately flat. Small Great Things is about a neo-Nazi couple who refuse to let a black nurse care for their newborn baby, and as a result the baby dies (an event about which I have a lot to say). The book then follows the nurse, Ruth Jefferson, as she is blamed and sued for the baby’s death, and explores the problems exclusive to black women and their relations with white people. It is a well-written book, if formulaic, but falls flat due to both its predictability and its surface-level understanding of race relations and the black community.

First of all, I’d like to talk about one of the major plot points: the death of baby Davis. The book jacket does not say the baby dies—only that he goes into “cardiac distress”. The reader goes into it expecting trauma, but not death. Fundamentally, I disagree with killing off children for the sake of the plot. It’s cruel and it’s unnecessary. Even if Picoult and her team of editors deemed it necessary, there should have been a warning. Picoult’s audience is primarily made up of mothers, many of whom have experienced the death or near-death of a child and were forced to relive the experience when reading Small GreatThings–myself included, though I’m not a mother, just a big sister. Simply, I find that irresponsible.

But onto the structure of the book. It has all the Picoult trademarks: narration from multiple points of view, a single mother, a court case, an inspiring relationship between lawyer and client. Structurally, it is identical to nearly every other book Picoult has written. This is not necessarily a bad thing; but when you, like me, have read most of her books, it starts to feel like you’re reading the same book over and over, just with different characters and court cases. I guess I can’t quite fault Picoult for this formula, as it has gotten her on the NYT bestsellers list nearly a dozen times, and if Small Great Things was a person’s first Picoult novel, they wouldn’t know the pattern. However, I’m longing for some variation in Picoult’s storytelling, and also feel like this format doesn’t lend itself well to every story.

Now onto the story. Small Great Things is a story about race. And Picoult makes sure you KNOW it’s about race. It is told primarily from the point of view of Ruth Jefferson, a black woman; but it was written by a white woman who, despite all her best intentions and formal research, can never understand the lived experiences of black women. It’s obvious that Picoult did extensive research (and not only because of the disclaimer she puts in the epilogue), because she retells the stories and sentiments of black women. Retells. She doesn’t interpret. She doesn’t really understand. She simply retells. While well-intentioned (in the epilogue, she even begs white people to “do and be better”, which is a great sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with), this is problematic in the way that it’s a white woman speaking for (and speaking over) people of color. I was almost able to overlook this until the climax of the novel, which involves the white lawyer literally forcing Ruth to be quiet and then speaking for her. The white lawyer has just had an epiphany about racism, and how she’s complicit in it, and then she doesn’t even let a black woman speak! Ultimately she wins the case with her speech, but holy performative white allyship, Batman! Also, in my opinion, the neo-Nazi man, Turk, was portrayed far too sympathetically–also disturbing when you remember that this book was written by a white woman. He shows very small signs of doubting the neo-Nazi lifestyle, obviously meant to show that he isn’t a monster, but those signs of doubt are so small they’re nearly insignificant. He hesitates for a moment before shooting a caricature of a Jewish man. Wow. How redeemable. I believe that MOST people would hesitate before shooting a cardboard Jew–or, you know, would NOT SHOOT AT ALL. In the end, too, he ends up doing a complete 180—marrying a woman of color, getting his swastika tattoos removed, joining the Anti-Defamation league–for no reason but to show us…what? That neo-Nazis can change? That we should see the good in white supremacists? With white supremacists literally trying to take over the government, that’s a pretty dangerous sentiment to put out there.

With all that being said, I do not believe Picoult realizes what she’s done or is necessarily racist (even though her depiction of non-educated black folk is so simplistic and stereotypical that it almost hurts to read). Again, I think she’s well-intentioned and really wants this book to provoke thought in white people. But in the end, what it actually does is make white women pat themselves on the back for not being as racist as the neo-Nazi (who ends up forgiven anyway!!! That part really boils my turnips, it does. No forgiveness for Nazis). Instead of being hard and unflinching, this book just does not dive deep enough into race relations, and creates a self-congratulatory feedback loop instead of the dialogue that I’m sure Picoult intended.

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