Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
This is the longest book review I’ve ever written. There was so much to write I just couldn’t stop.
This was the first time I read a book by Jodi Picoult and it was an experience to be savoured. I could see the broad sweep of her prose even in the first few pages.
The title of the book refers to Martin Luther King’s quote, If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.
We begin with the first person point of view of Ruth. As a child, she would accompany her mother, a housemaid, to the mansion of the white Hallowells. Seeing her mother help Mina, the white mistress, during labour where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert inspires Ruth to be a labour and delivery nurse.
Years later, Ruth helps a baby, Davis, born to Brittany and Turk Bauer, but they turn out to be white supremacists, and they don’t want a black nurse around them or their baby. Ruth’s supervisor takes a decision to bar her from being around the baby even though she is the most capable and experienced nurse on duty. Ruth resents the slight and the humiliation.
Then when the baby is in distress, all the other nurses are busy, and Ruth is the only one at hand. She hesitates just for a moment, and in that time, the baby takes seriously ill, and is unable to be revived. By the time she tries to resuscitate the baby, it is too late.
She says, It’s been fourteen nights when I’ve awakened with a start, reliving not that infant’s death but the moments before. Playing them in slow motion and reversing them and erasing the edges of the narrative in my head so that I start to believe what I’ve told myself. What I’ve told others. As Ruth prays for the soul of baby Davis, I felt her pain.
The hospital, fearing a lawsuit, distances itself from Ruth, who is arrested and accused of being responsible for the baby’s death. Criminal manslaughter, amounting to death.
At first, Ruth doesn’t trust Kennedy, the defense attorney allotted to her case, because she is white, and withholds the truth of her hesitation from her. Kennedy is determined to fight the allegation of negligence, and to play down the race issue. It is a subject upon which she and Ruth cannot agree.
There is no such thing as a fact. There is only how you saw the fact in a given moment. How you reported the fact. How your brain processed that fact. There is no extrication of the storyteller from the story.
Slowly it seems that Kennedy gets into the skin of her client, beginning to understand what she goes through every moment of her life. She is professional and efficient and touched by her client’s innocence.
Ruth knows that as a woman of colour, she is more likely to be suspected and accused. She is thrown in prison, where she struggles to hold on to her dignity, unwilling to lose herself as she waits for bail to be posted. The first freedom you lose in prison is privacy, the second is dignity.
A trial is a mind game, so that the defendant’s armor is chipped away one scale at a time, until you can’t help but wonder if maybe what the prosecution is saying is true. Ruth begins to doubt herself, wondering if she is really guilty and unable to see it.
The book brings out the struggle faced by the Blacks. The blacks are invisible in positions of glory. They stand out only when they are viewed with suspicion.
When the issue is as heated as this, it polarizes people, pitting them on opposite sides, evoking hostility. I am Indian, I have brown skin. I could understand the discrimination faced by people like Ruth, even though I myself have rarely felt it. My country has also had a shameful record of treating people as less than human because of their birth.
The chapters come to us from the first person PoVs of Ruth, Turk and Kennedy. The chapters from Turk’s PoV show us the same scenes with Ruth, this time from his perspective, as also his childhood and early life. How his brother died and how his family blamed a black man and how he brought into the myth of white supremacy. Turk’s narrative includes details about his parents, life with his grandfather, how he became part of the Movement, and his meeting with Brittany, whose father Francis Mitchum is the leader of the Movement.
We get the back stories of all three narrators, and we realize we are all humans with failings. The author doesn’t take any sides. She showed us the human side and frailty of all three voices. She doesn’t paint the white supremacists negatively either. Their pain at losing their baby is palpable.
Each chapter is presaged by quotes on the theme of justice, change, colour and harmony by authors like Benjamin Franklin, James Baldwin, Maria Cristina Mena.
The beauty of Jodi’s writing is worth remarking upon. Better give him all the love you had stored up for his lifetime right now helped me understand the fierce love of parents who mourn an infant gone too soon.
Every baby is born beautiful. It’s what we project on them that makes us ugly spoke a harsh truth we like to forget. I liked another quote about babies. Babies are such blank slates. They don’t come into this world with the assumptions their parents have made, …or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don’t like.
Another quote about how people are vulnerable: Sometimes when people spoke, it wasn’t because they had something important to say. It was because they had a powerful need for someone to listen.
And this one about how black people are never celebrated:
The only time people who look like us are making history, it’s a footnote.
Ruth’s education and hard work take her above her station, but the race issue pulls her down again. I think about water, how it might rise above its station as mist, flirt at being a cloud, and return as rain. Would you call that falling? Or coming home?
Ruth’s mother Lou’s homespun wisdom was true. You don’t go to school with a stain on your shirt, because if you do, people aren’t going to judge you for being sloppy. They’re going to judge you for being Black.
Ruth is teased for being Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside.
The author gives us a close look at the work that a nurse does. It left me with newfound respect for the profession. I’m not familiar with the medical profession but Jodi’s description of the hospital procedures and medical jargon never strike a false note.
I enjoy reading courtroom dramas, the incensed, impassioned speeches and here Kennedy gives that to us in ample measure. She gives the defence all she’s got.
Ruth realizes, talking to Kennedy, that prejudice is judging before the evidence exists, In a culture in which the very words, white and black, are synonymous with good and evil, the Blacks have it bad. Ruth is passed over for promotion with Marie who has 10 years less experience being promoted over her.
Edison, Ruth’s son, gets a taste of racism when his best friend Bryce is not comfortable with Edison dating his sister. Edison also faces the brunt of Ruth’s case. A straight honours student like his mother, it doesn’t save him from discrimination.
Jodi weaves in real stories, juxtaposing the fictional story in a real world in which people like Trayvon Martin and Ahmed, the Muslim boy who brought a clock to school and was arrested for his pains, become news for entirely unjust reasons, merely on account of the colour of their skin.
I liked the way Jodi was able to connect seemingly unrelated things to the race issue: the colour of the Bandaid made to match a white person’s skin tone, Emu in the sky, the constellation near the Southern Cross.
In Jodi’s deft hands, all the relationships came out beautifully. Most of all, I liked the manner in which she brought out the piquancy of the equations between parent and child, especially a teenage one, and those between sisters, and friends, between a lawyer and a client, and between spouses.
Despite her differences with Ruth, Adisa, her older sister, stood up for her, You are my only sister.
After her mother dies, Ruth thinks of her as a reminder of the beauty of a mother-daughter relationship.
Looking at her mother is like looking in a mirror that distorts by years. On losing her, she says, What’s it like being the balloon when someone lets go of the string.
In death, her mother looks like an illustration in a book, two-dimensional, when she ought to be leaping off the page and I realize this is as much an expression of Ruth’s grief as it is a description of Jodi’s characters. They all leap off the page.
Little by little, there is a change in the equation between Ruth and Kennedy. It’s the difference between dancing along the eggshell crust of acquaintance and driving into the messy center of a relationship. It’s not always perfect, it’s not always pleasant – but because it is rooted in respect, it is unshakable.
The beauty of Jodi’s writing is that while this book is about race relations, and grief and entitlement, it’s also about the pain of losing a parent, of raising children and watching them grow into adulthood, the difficulty of parenting teenagers, the nature of friendships, and self-identity.
I was amazed at the quality of the prose, at the connections that Jodi makes us see. The fact that Kennedy’s husband Micah is an eye surgeon, juxtaposed against the fact that we live in a world where people pretend that they do not see.
The ending is a bolt that takes us by surprise, but when you think about it, it is the most satisfying ending. All I will tell you is that it ends with hope: Freedom is the fragile neck of a daffodil, after the longest of winters.
A brilliant book that I am now busy recommending to anyone who will listen.
(I got an ARC through First To Read.)