Tag Archives: Racial Issues

Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult

Literature highlighting the latent racism hidden amongst even the most liberal of the white population in the United States is especially relevant during a time when the slogan “Make America Great Again” appears to be code for “Make America White Again”. With a self proclaimed white supremacist stashed near President Trump’s ear, the rest of us, no matter which way we voted, need to be vigilant against any attempts to reinstitute laws which are discriminatory. Already there is a cry out against what is referred to as the “New Jim Crow Laws” as our citizens of color march under the banner “Black Lives Matter”.

Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult examines the life of Ruth Anderson, a maternity nurse who lives a comfortable life style in an upscale neighborhood in Connecticut, the widow of an American war veteran and the mother of an outstanding sophomore attending a prestigious high school. (Did I mention that she is black?)

Her entire life changes when a young couple is horrified that a black woman is touching their newborn son and she is asked to step away and refrain from interacting with the tiny babe. Yet, shit happens, and Ruth finds herself alone with the infant when he stops breathing, choosing to resuscitate the limp form but stepping back as soon as she hears help arriving. Asked to start chest compressions while the doctor does his due diligence, little Davis still dies. The parents threaten to sue for negligence, but the hospital lawyer sees Ruth as an easy target and redirects their energies in her direction.

It’s at this point Ruth’s life becomes surreal as she is relieved of her duties at the hospital, loses her nursing license, and finds herself being dragged off to jail in the middle of the night wearing nothing but a nightgown. Out of a job and refusing to touch Edison’s College Fund, Ruth relies on a public defender to plead her case as she slings burgers at McDonalds to make ends meet. Her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white woman, pursues the case for altruistic motives but discovers her own hidden biases as she becomes aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) forms discrimination takes in a society geared towards the needs of a white clientele.

Moving back and forth between the points of view of the three main characters – Turk (Davis’ father), Kennedy, and Ruth – the plot advances through the trial and its aftermath with an epilogue that also hints at future events.

Jodi Piccoult takes on a heavy topic which is made more difficult since she is white and can only empathize with the black community through second hand experiences. Yet Piccoult’s popularity provides a vehicle to explore a sensitive issue which has been ignored for way too long. Based on some real experiences, the author takes a few liberties and at times stretches our sense of credibility, although this longish story is absolutely readable and engrossing on many levels, despite the too convenient ending. Its almost instant popularity guarantees a wide readership and will perhaps open some eyes to many of the daily mishaps experienced by our neighbors who were not lucky enough to be born into a life of privilege based simply on skin color. Of equal importance is a glance into the white supremacist movement, analyzing the various motivations and strategies used by an ever present segment of our society.

Four stars and a thank you to both Netgalley and the author, through Goodreads, for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Since You’ve Been Gone by Mary Jennifer Payne

In a YA book, the expectations for great literature are not very high. Teens tend to want a fast paced story with some action, a bit of conflict, a touch of romance, and a dose of angst thrown in for good measure. Mary Jennifer Payne has tossed all this into the mix in her novel, Since You’ve Been Gone, with a varying degree of success.

Edie and her mom are constantly on the run from an abusive father who has a tendency towards violence whenever conflicts arise, which is fairly often. The day he placed a hand on Edie was the day her mother packed their bags and left home, successfully eluding her husband for five years by constantly switching from one locale to the next. Although Toronto was their original home, this latest move finds the two in London, England, where Sydney Fraser spent her youth.

Edie is sick of the constant upheaval and now she’s in a new country with different customs. Her first day at school she meets (and rejects) the school nerd, is accosted by the school bully, and settles in with some potential friends. The teachers are not overly welcoming and she is reprimanded for being late. While striving to keep a low profile, she needs to find a solution to a major catastrophe in her life – the sudden, prolonged disappearance of her mom. After stealing the fundraising jar of money meant to help build a school for girls in Afghanistan, she is able to fund a weekend to search for her missing parent. Unfortunately, a fellow classmate, Jermaine, is the one accused of theft. Even though he knows that Edie is the culprit, he remains mum in exchange for the truth. Together the two set out on a manhunt to discover the whereabouts of Sydney Fraser.

As an American, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the various landmarks in London. Common names, such as Tim Horton’s (a popular coffee shop throughout Canada started by a famous hockey player), Starbucks, and Burger King are relatable to those of us living in North America. Other customs may be a little alien, such as double decker buses and the metro system. They add a little spice to the story. Also of interest are the racial dynamics facing a black teen born and raised in England. Jermaine seems to face some prejudice, with teachers dismissing his intelligence and punks threatening to knife him in full view of a crowd, but it doesn’t extend to the developing friendship/romance between the two protagonists and, in spite of his questionable treatment, Jermaine remains one of the good guys.

Unfortunately, the plot line has a potential which is never reached. One of my criticisms is that the story takes place within about a week’s time. The idea that all the events unfold this quickly defies logic. And even though it is a relatively short novel (the perfect length for a YA story) there are sections which drag. While the premise is interesting, the specific events leading up to the climax are dull, in spite of some “erroneous events” popping up along the way that at times enhance and at other times detract from the story. There are also a lot of random characters who make brief appearances but aren’t worth noticing. In addition, Edie’s thoughts are too often like a broken record. The most complex and interesting character is Jermaine. I would have liked to have heard more of his story. The romance between these two was gentle and appropriate for fifteen or sixteen year olds, with more of an emphasis on friendship then on passion.

Just because a book is meant for Young Adults, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve well developed characters with interesting motivations. Ms Payne needs to know when to spend more time on a topic, and when to eliminate unnecessary elements to the story, in order to create a more cohesive whole. Hopefully her next novel will reflect these recommendations. I give this book three stars.

I would like to thank Dundurn Press from Ontario, Canada and Netgalley for allowing me to download a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.