Why “Small Great Things” Doesn’t Work, “The Help” Kind of Works, & “All the Light We Cannot See” Does

One of my favorite parts of reading is that reading allows us to transport ourselves into a different world–even if that world is still something very familiar to our own–and to see how that world might function differently than our own. Call me a Modernist, but my favorite books are those in which depict reality, but to find a way to depict this reality that is subtle, wise, and finds a way to illuminate a story through everyday events (because, in my quotidian life that is not a planned out fiction story, I can train myself to see my life as exciting, purposeful, metaphorical–kind of like the lesson in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish”)–that’s why I loved Fate & Furies so much–the characters could be real people, the events that happened to them could really happen, and the story ends in a realistic way (you know, the non-Disney way where there is a happily ever after–sometimes in our own lives, our happily ever after isn’t the things that happens to us, but rather, becomes the way in which we interpret those events).

In my favorite article, “Screening America”, Jason Mittell discusses how T.V trains it’s viewers to see reality in unrealistic ways. Genres, such as science fiction, have a little more leeway, and perhaps a little less moral obligation, because, as the viewer, I am aware that, while this story may be an interpretation of my own world, the world is still far away from my own, so, while I may contemplate the existence of R2D2’s and lightsabers, I don’t actually expect them to pop up in my own world. Or, while there certainly have been societies in the past who philosophized about keeping their people ignorant and after reading “1984”, I see trends of groupthink going on, I don’t actually expect my society to turn into a dystopia. But, according to Mittell, depicting everyday people in everyday settings, tackling everyday problems can be dangerous, because our brains forget that is T.V., and we are reality, and we begin to believe that the things that happen in those stories are things that should happen in our everyday lives–observe any 3 year old who watches Disney Channel–all of a sudden, they start talking sass, because they see the characters in the show doing it, and because those characters are “reality”, it must be relevant in real life.

So, the reason I do not think Jodi Picoult’s novel “Small Great Things” works is because the novel does not accurately depict reality, and not depicting reality could be dangerous for  (and in her case, the average reader is a white, middle class female). The general plot line of the story is that Ruth, a black nurse, gets assigned a white supremacist family, who aggressively asks her manager to take her off the case; the staff is short staffed, an emergency erupts, and suddenly, Ruth is the only one allowed to watch over the baby. The baby dies, the white supremacist parents blame Ruth, and there is obviously a big trial where the reader is “gripped on the edge of his/her seat”, hoping for Ruth’s acquittal (I won’t tell you how the story ends, but I will say it’s all entirely unrealistic).

I think anytime you are writing for the masses, you have an obligation to ensure you are training them in moral and ethical ways, because while you may have knowledge of a situation, they may not, and so you have to ensure you are providing accurate information, and that is my problem with “Small Great Things”–I think, as an author, you have to be very careful about which kind of perspective you are taking in, because ultimately, you are assuming authority and owning that world in which the characters inhabit. And, Jodi Picoult is a white author, trying to inhabit a black woman’s experience. Something like “The Help” kind of works, because, while the story deals with similar issues of racism, Kathryn Stockett is a white author, the story is primarily from Skeeter’s point of view (although we do hear stuff from Minny), a white character; “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a better example, because while Harper Lee is also a white author, she is writing about racism from Scout’s white-person point of view, and not pretending to own a world that is not hers. Like, “Small Great Things” might be more successful if it were written from a third person point of view–still following the characters and switching points of views, but I felt it a little inauthentic for Jodi Picoult to attempt to inhabit Ruth’s world, because no matter how much research she did, I just don’t think she could ever fully and accurately represent that world. And, the problem is–her target audience is not going to think this way–its just another story of the White Man saving the poor, ignorant, desolate black man–and her target audience will triumph in that victory (“See, look at how nice and altruistic and charities we White people are”), rather than accurately depicting reality; “Small Great Things”, while it attempts to shed light on racism, I think actually does the reverse by continuing to divide and separate two groups of people.

One of the purposes of literature, and delving into these other worlds, is to gain compassion and understanding–the more we learn about another person’s way of life, the more we see them as ones like our own kind, the less judgement we omit. This is why I think a story like “All the Light We Cannot See” works—“All the Light We Cannot See” is about a blind Parisian girl who encounters a Nazi recruit during World War II. This story, too, shifts perspectives from Marie-Laure, the blind girl, to Werner’s, the Nazi recruit, but in such a way that we see both of these characters as people. So often in war stories, and literature in general, we have the “good guy”, “bad guy” complex going on (In “Small Great Things”, it is Ruth, the good guy, against Turk, the bad guy”)–in order to unify us as readers, we must connect to one character as benevolently good, and another character as malevolently evil, and we forget that, especially in times of war or conflict, both sides feel they are doing right–both sides are defending their ways of life–what they know as the most moral and ethical–the Germans felt they were right, Turk felt he was justified…

Garth Brooks sings, “When the last thing we notice is the color of the skin/And the first thing we look for is the beauty within…..Then we shall be free”, because, if we want to free ourselves of racism, sexism, and whatever new -ism there is, we must stop seeing groups of people as separate than ourselves, and we must begin to see people as just people (which I realize is way easier said than done).

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.” -Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

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