Hazel McHaffie

The Storyteller

Martin Luther King: ‘I can do small things in a great way.’

As regular visitors to my blog will know I’ve read all of Jodi Picoult’s books (the single authored ones at least) and I was delighted when her style changed from being rather formulaic to more varied. Her twentieth one, The Storyteller, was an absolute triumph, as I wrote three years ago.

So I simply had to read her latest offering: Small Great Things. I confess, I’m not much enamoured of her title, but she had a very valid reason for choosing it. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr once said: ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way‘, and this book is all about the things Dr King fought for. A fair defence.

As ever Picoult combines a compelling storyline with an important and challenging issue, in this case racial discrimination and prejudice, still, it seems, a major problem in the US. And as usual it’s well-researched, cleverly constructed and both thought-provoking and insightful.

Ruth Jefferson is a law-abiding, hard-working, academically able midwife (known as a labor and delivery nurse in the US) and widowed mum. It’s racial discrimination that brings her before the courts indicted for murder. The opening chapters lead gently into the scenario. When Ruth comes on shift and takes over from a colleague, part of her caseload includes a new mother, Brittany Bauer, and her newborn baby son, Davis. She sets about doing routine tests on the baby boy but his father, Turk, registers a strong objection to a woman of colour touching his child. Ruth’s boss, Marie, who has half her years of experience but has been promoted over her, makes a snap decision to stick a hot-pink Post-it on the baby’s notes: NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT. So when the child collapses in front of her what is Ruth to do? At the time of his death she is one of several people in attendance, nevertheless she is the one the parents blame; the only black member of staff.

Picoult portrays the Bauers as ugly characters, aggressive white supremicists who think nothing of beating up Jews or homosexuals or black people. Humiliating others, hounding them, oppressing anyone who disagrees with their take on the world – that’s their modus operandi. It makes quite shocking reading.

By contrast Ruth and her son are peaceable God-fearing Christians with strong moral values. And her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, is a sympathetic happily married mother-of-one who has devoted her life to helping the downtrodden and under-privileged. I think my editors would advise blurring the lines between good and evil rather more but that’s a literary quibble. And unseen unexpected characteristics do emerge towards the end.

Picoult’s trademark multiple-points-of-view are useful for opening the eyes of the reader to the nuances of language and the many ways in which society can discriminate, and I loved the way Ruth took her lawyer on an ordinary shopping trip to show her what it felt like to be a black woman in a white society. And Kennedy’s own deliberate exposure of herself to the scary experience of being in a minority.

But best of all, this time Picoult adds a lengthy note saying how much she herself was chastened by what she learned while researching and reading for this book. Her career as a novelist has been driven by outrage and a desire to make people aware of injustice, inequality and victims’ stories. This time it’s particularly powerful because it has touched her personally. She was ‘exploring my past, my upbringing, my biases, and I was discovering that I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined.

‘So what have I learned that is useful? Well, if you are white, like I am, you can’t get rid of the privilege you have, but you can use it for good. Don’t say I don’t even notice race! like it’s a positive thing. Instead, recognize that differences between people make it harder for some to cross a finish line, and create fair paths to success for everyone that accommodate those differences. Educate yourself. If you think someone’s voice is being ignored, tell others to listen. If your friend makes a racist joke, call him out on it, instead of just going along with it. … I didn’t write this novel because I thought it would be fun or easy. I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know. As Roxana Robinson said, “A writer is like a tuning fork: we respond when we’re struck by something … If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us.”‘ There speaks honest conviction.

And of course, she teaches us in a most engaging way, which is why she is rightfully an ongoing best-seller. Small Great Things is a real page-turner. The author makes no claim to literary pretensions but she does drop in her customary occasional delightful turns of phrase.

The prosecutor is ‘about as jolly as the death penalty‘.

Ruth’s mother was a strict parent: ‘I remember how once, she put out a place setting at the dinner table for my attitude, and she told me, Girl, when you leave the table, that can stay behind.’

The science of creating another human is remarkable, and no matter how many times I’ve learned about cells and mitosis and neural tubes and all the rest that goes into forming a baby, I can’t help but think there’s a dash of miracle involved, too.‘ (I’ve delivered countless babies myself and I never lost this sense of wonder and awe either.)

The lawyer asks her junior: ‘How old are you anyway?’
‘Twenty-four.’
‘I have sweaters older than you.’

An author who always has something important to say and a way of leaving her characters tucked into your consciousness long after you’ve closed her covers.

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Fact, fiction and fabrication

You’ve heard me say it before: I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. I’ve dutifully read them all – well, of course I have; her trademark is an ethical question at the heart of the story. So I had to buy her latest one and … wow! it’s in a totally different league from her others. Nothing formulaic; no sense of déjà-vu at all.

But, as ever, she has thoroughly researched her material, and manages to ‘wear the learning lightly’. The descriptions of bread making are as delicious as the accounts of mass exterminations are harrowing.

AuschwitzA nonagenarian, Josef Weber, and a reclusive young woman, Sage Singer, meet in a bakery. On the surface they seem like improbable friends. For seventy years Weber has been hiding; hiding in full view of everyone. He is a model citizen; a much loved German teacher; an active youth worker; a lonely widower with only a dachshund for company. But unbeknown to his community, he is also a murderer; a former Nazi SS guard. Sage, on the other hand, is a young orphaned baker with a facial disfigurement, who works by night and sleeps by day, deliberately avoiding human contact, burdened by guilt. Is this meeting serendipitous? Or is there something more sinister behind it? After keeping his black secret all these years, what has prompted Josef to confess his past to Sage? And how will she react to his shocking revelation? Or to his request: he wants Sage to help him to die …?

Sage was brought up in a Jewish family (as Picoult herself was). Her grandmother, Minka, is a survivor of the Nazi atrocities and of cancer, who has never told her story … until now. And what a story it is – of depravity and courage, of brutality and love, of forgiveness and revenge, or murder and mercy. The first person account of Minka’s experiences of life in Nazi Germany, in Auschwitz, is told without sentimentality, and is all the more poignant and gripping for that.

In the past, Picoult has been given to overly analysing and revealing the psychology of her characters – in my view, anyway. In The Storyteller, however, she has left the experiences, the actions, the lives, to speak for themselves; a brilliant decision and one I’ve very much taken to heart. But she still manages to summarise profound truths in succinct dialogue:

 ‘When a freedom is taken away from you, I suppose, you recognise it as a privilege, not a right.’

 ‘I could never forgive the Schutzhaftlagerführer for killing my best friend … I mean I couldn’t – literally – because it is not my place to forgive him.’

 ‘If you lived through it (the Holocaust), you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn’t, you will never understand.’

Minka, Sage’s grandmother, the storyteller, is at the core of this story. She lived ‘a remarkable life. She watched her nation fall to pieces; and even when she became collateral damage, she believed in the power of the human spirit. She gave when she had nothing; she fought when she could barely stand; she clung to tomorrow when she couldn’t find footing on the rock ledge of yesterday. She was a chameleon, slipping into the personae of a privileged young girl, a frightened teen, a dreamy novelist, a proud prisoner, an army wife, a mother hen. She became whomever she needed to be to survive, but she never let anyone else define her.’ She has also written a powerful fiction of her own.

Other threads – Josef’s story, Sage’s, Minka’s novel – are woven around and through this emotive core, creating at once an absorbing read, a sobering challenge, a powerful allegory, a warming family saga. And the whole leaves the reader asking: What is forgiveness? What is justice? What would I have done?

Highly recommended.

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The Storyteller

First, a very happy New Year to you all.

Next, an update.

Phew! That’s my annual excursion into the realms of children’s fiction safely over for another year. (Hard to believe that’s the fourteenth in the series!) Cobwebs and spiders and mysterious birds and magical bells and quill pens and metal puzzles have all been packed away, and the house has once again resumed its ordinariness. It took two days to set the scene (well, it’s a complete takeover); only about four hours to demolish.  CobwebsAppropriately enough this time the theme of our play was of an ancient storyteller passing on the tricks of the trade to a new generation of budding writers. (This gorgeous sign for the door was drawn for me by an expert calligrapher in Turkey!)Storyteller signThe play began with a dream on a hot summer’s day in which the spirit of the old storyteller bade the children to follow the sound of bells and ‘Write!’ under her instructions.The dreamerFirst they had to divest themselves of all distractions and worries and free up their minds to soar. Here they are, suitably divested, and in their bland authorial outfits.Bland authorial outfitsThey then caught ideas in specially crafted feather and net catchers wearing inspiration monitors on their heads which flashed every time a new idea impinged on their brains.Catching ideasThe ideas then had to be sorted to form the basis for a story of their own. (And yes, I did write FIVE stories this year – three of them based on the framework the youngsters had given me beforehand. You try creating a coherent tale that involves badgers and secret codes and smugglers and hidden tunnels and circus clowns and a boat and forests and horrible smells, all in one fell swoop!!)Sorting ideasThey rearranged the ideas painlessly by means of basic fabric stoles with loads of pockets which they wore close to their chests. It was then time to think outside the box and develop their own unique voice: illustrated by designing their personal variations on a basic hat.Creating hatsA roomful of dressing-up clothes, wigs, shoes and props gave them plenty of scope to learn about character development as they assumed the persona and idiosyncrasies of various protagonists they dreamed up. Dressing-up roomThis outfit probably took the prize for most bizarre but was very well defended, I must confess!Becoming a characterAs they grew into the role of mini storytellers their own clothing became more distinctive.Storytelling tunicsAnd when their narratives were well developed, the authors assumed grand brocade or velvet cloaks created especially to represent the appealing covers of their books.Becoming more exotic and arrestingThroughout the play, with each ‘exercise’, their raw plots and characters were being magically polished and refined – with a liberal helping of fairy dust throw in for good measure naturally.Weaving a little magicAnd at the end of the process they read the final version to the audience wearing an exotic outfit to symbolise the rarefied atmosphere of an authorial reading.Reading the final productThe whole thing culminated in a baking session where they made Storytelling Cake – but I absolutely cannot share the recipe. Every single person present has taken a vow of secrecy.  It will be passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, but never EVER given to schoolteachers so please don’t bother applying for a copy!Storytelling cake

 

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