Hazel McHaffie

Martin Luther King

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?’
‘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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Challenging behaviours

For those of you who are new to my blog, I should explain that I am no stranger to dementia. My mother developed the vascular form during the last year of her life; I’ve spent a fair amount of time over many years (as a volunteer) with people who are living with this and other variations of the illness; attended a number of conferences on the subject; read literally dozens of books about it; and even written one myself.Remember Remember

Even so, this week I learned several new facts about it when I attended a course on how to manage challenging behaviours. Did you know for example that changes occur in the brains of people with dementia that make them prefer sweet things? Some delegates on the course were salivating at the very thought of a cast iron reason for skipping the main course and diving straight into dessert … two desserts maybe!

Did you also know that memories are lost in the reverse order to that in which they are gained? Which is why the person might not know what they had for lunch but they vividly remember their mum.

The course tutor was really good, using both her academic knowledge and her practical experience (she was a manager of a residential home for people who presented with challenging behaviour) to excellent effect. All the delegates present are currently employed in caring for residents in care homes in their working lives, but don’t we all know someone with memory loss and confusion at some level? So the kernel of the course is probably relevant to anyone.

The secret to successfully being alongside them without getting distressed yourself, is to remember that challenging behaviours are a form of communicating something. If we’re uncomfortable or upset by these behaviours we are not ‘getting’ what the person is trying to convey. Remember Martin Luther King‘s comment: ‘Violence is the voice of the unheard‘? We have to ‘listen’ to what’s being ‘said’ by these reactions and try to think ourselves into the shoes of the person exhibiting the things which we find challenging; to work out what might be making them feel trapped or frustrated or afraid or embarrassed etc. And isn’t understanding how people tick, why they do what they do, the stock in trade of every novelist?

For me personally there was another very salutary lesson too: there is no shame in admitting ‘defeat’. There are days when I simply can’t make any headway with a person, I can’t ‘walk in their moccasins’, and I come away feeling guilty and dejected by my own inadequacy. Better to accept gracefully that today I am not the person to be with her/him, or to do that activity with her/him, I learned. Maybe indeed I am not the person best suited to this particular resident/patient/friend at all. It’s probably nobody’s fault; merely a feature of the disease.Aged hands clasped

I’m often asked if I’m a full time writer. No. But I’m sure I’m the better for spending time walking alongside these vulnerable people who can teach me such a lot, some of which in turn feeds into my writing life.

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