A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult*****

smallgreatthings“Is it worth being able to say what you need to say, if it means you land in prison?”

Small Great Things is a courageous novel, one that will excite a fair amount of controversy, and it’s one that needed to be written; it’s the most important novel released this year. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for my honest review. This book will be available to the public October 11, and you should read it.

Picoult’s readers will recognize the familiar format presented here, the alternating points of view of the novel’s main characters. Foremost is Ruth Jefferson, a middle aged labor and delivery nurse at Mercy Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Ruth is African-American. She’s making the rounds, doing a fairly perfunctory newborn check when Turk, the father of little Davis Bauer orders her out of the room. He wants to see her supervisor; he wants a note on his son’s chart that no Black person may touch his child. Turk is a white supremacist; he has the Confederate flag tattooed on his arm. The chart is flagged to indicate that no Black medical personnel—which in this hospital and on this ward means Ruth, since she’s the only African-American there—may touch or care for Davis Bauer.

She is told it’s for her own protection too.

But an emergency unfolds, and just as in real life, the hospital is understaffed. There are a limited number of nurses that can take care of emergencies, and when the rotation is full, the only person to keep an eye on Davis following his circumcision is Ruth. The nurse that had been attending him swears she’ll be back in just a few minutes. After all, what could go wrong?

What could go wrong does go wrong, as bad as it gets: Davis dies, and Ruth is blamed. She is suspended not only from the hospital but from nursing, and ultimately, when the hospital hears from the Bauers’ attorney, the administration decides to toss Ruth under the bus. She is arrested and charged with murder.

I have to say here that those that have big ugly reactions to triggers may not be able to read this thing. The language is harsh. There are dead babies in multiple places; if you or someone close to you has lost a baby, decide whether you can go here. There are lots of vicious racist and sexist terms tossed about, not carelessly or as a shortcut to establishing that someone is a bad guy, but because there’s no authentic way to voice a white supremacist character without using them. And I am frankly uncomfortable hearing Turk’s voice, and even more so with the amount of care Picoult uses to develop this character. It makes the book much more powerful, and those that wonder just what in hell makes someone turn out this way can watch it unfold. Is her depiction realistic? I have no clue. However, I can say I believe she has done due diligence with research, and it can’t have been easy.

Until now we have heard alternating voices, those of Ruth and Turk.Once Ruth is in trouble, we add a third character, that of Kennedy McQuarrie, the clueless attorney who sits down with Ruth and explains to her that she doesn’t see race. And ultimately the struggle isn’t about getting Ruth out of jeopardy and back to her job; it’s about how to do that.

Because Ruth, who has been more than tolerant around well intentioned Caucasian people that say offensive things without any idea how terrible they sound, has had enough. She went through Cornell University, but first she had to endure the hallway whispers that she only got in because she was Black. She speaks Standard English, and is fed up to here with being told she is too White. And she was paying close attention when Trayvon’s murderer walked away free; she doesn’t want her son to be the next young man in a hoody sweatshirt shot by cops terrified not of weapons or behavior, but of skin color.

So Ruth wants to go to court and she wants to talk about race. But Kennedy tells her that this is a losing strategy; only by sticking closely to the procedural aspects of the case will Ruth be able to reclaim her life. And Ruth is having none of it.

The people that really need to read this book are those that really think “all lives matter” is an encompassing slogan. I fear many of them will be too afraid of this story to go there. Likely those of us that understand that this slogan is a veiled way to say that only White lives matter are the ones that will be drawn into this story.

The ending felt contrived to me, but the rest of this novel is so well done that I’m not going to split hairs here.

I was somewhat taken aback by the author’s note suggesting that Caucasian readers should take the message back to “other White people”, in our “own” communities. And I do understand that much of the USA is still segregated, but I have been the only Caucasian in my house for a lot of years, and I wasn’t sure quite what to do with her assumption, particularly given that the theme of this story could very well be that nobody has the right to assume things about a person based on that person’s race or ethnicity. But I can live with it, because the story itself is much more powerful than the notes at the end, and I understand that her ultimate message to White folks is that we must not try to be “white knights” that rush in and take over the struggle, but rather allies that follow and support.

I wish it could be required reading for everyone…especially for those that say they don’t see race.