“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Martin Luther King
Small Great Things is vintage Picoult–suspense, empathy, and humour used to great effect. Picoult doesn’t stray much from her usual formula. She typically examines an issue from all angles with the use of multiple character voices, creating tension around a conflict, moral dilemmas, and possible outcomes. Why change a highly effective strategy if it results in an engaging novel? Even though I find some of her writing a bit cliché she does her research well and I have found all of her novels to be ‘page-turners-plus’, evoking reflection and good discussion as well as being a compelling read. Her books are perfect for book clubs. It is obvious that she is very passionate about this particular topic which has resulted in a very good story and a very important conversation about race, prejudice, privilege, and justice.
The novel deals with racism, white supremacy, and hate crimes in the United States. Because of the prevailing political climate in the US surrounding the last election, this is a timely topic indeed and feels very close to current events. The story begins when a white couple have their first baby in hospital and refuse the care of a black neonatal nurse. A tragedy ensues, setting off a legal battle full of courtroom drama.
Picoult gives voice to three people who round out the story: the black nurse, the white supremacist, and the defence lawyer. Picoult humbly points out that no matter how non-racist some white people may feel they are, racism is still rampant in North American society. She digs deep to discover and reveal painful truths such as how much easier it is for bad white people to hide behind the colour of their skin, than for good people of colour to be regarded as good.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977 but has lived and worked in the US. Her book Half of a Yellow Sun was a masterpiece about the Biafran war. As an “American African” (a distinction she makes from “African American”), she has a foot in both worlds and is good at capturing the nuance of racism in America. This book, although it is fiction, has a very personal feel to it, including some stories that she may very well be gleaning from her own experience. There are amazing snapshots of her Nigerian home country. Having lived for many years in a few African countries myself, I can relate to her descriptions and recognize her character types. Her book is full of insights about racism which she first encountered when she moved to the US. Her character Ifemulu says, ” I only became black when I came to America.”
Ifemulu and Obinze fall in love in Lagos when they are both teens. In Nigeria, at that time, there was a continual striving to move out to Western countries, and both achieve this at different times. But their relationship suffers when they are parted and both establish their own lives until they meet again, after many years. Ifemulu is still the gutsy outspoken unique woman that Obinze remembers, and Ifemulu realizes too late that Obinze was always the love of her life. What happens when Ifemulu returns to Nigeria and they meet again, is best left to the reader. This is a slow and thoughtful book and though the story is enjoyable, at times I felt a bit more plot would have made it even more compelling. The strength lies in the observations she makes and the eloquence with which she makes them. I especially enjoyed the section where she comments on the Obama presidential campaign.