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Savannah Book Fest: Bestselling beach-book author Jodi Picoult broaches heavier topics in ‘Small Great Things’

  • Jodi Picoult
 

Savannah Book Fest: Bestselling beach-book author Jodi Picoult broaches heavier topics in ‘Small Great Things’

13 Feb 2018

During her 26-year career, Jodi Picoult has authored 23 novels, the past nine of which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Picoult will give the closing address at the 2018 Savannah Book Festival on Feb. 18. The event sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale. (As of Feb. 13, a limited number of tickets had opened up and were for sale online.)

Her novels have traditionally fallen into the commercial fiction realm, which is often overlooked by literary critics. Five of her books have been adapted for film and television, four of which were Lifetime Original Movies. “My Sister’s Keeper” was the exception. The 2009 feature film starred Cameron Diaz and Alec Baldwin.

She has won numerous awards for her writing, including The New England Bookseller Award for Fiction, The Alex Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association, a Lifetime Achievement Award for mainstream fiction from the Romance Writers of America, and the Fearless Fiction Award from Cosmopolitan magazine. A Princeton graduate, she was named to the university’s 25 most influential living alumni list earlier this year.

In her latest novel, Picoult has been hailed by critics for a daring, though perhaps oversimplified, look at racism in America. “Small Great Things,” released in 2016, centers around Ruth Jefferson, a labor and delivery nurse in a Connecticut hospital.

With years of neonatal experience, Jefferson is surprised when the parents of a newborn ask for her to be reassigned. Jefferson is the only African-American working in the maternity ward. The couple are white supremacists. The next day, the baby has health complications, and Jefferson is the only one in the room. Although reluctant, she performs CPR. When the baby dies, the nurse is charged in the death.

Jefferson is assigned a white female public defender, Kennedy, who acts as a stand-in for Picoult. In a piece for Time Magazine, Picoult addressed why she wrote the book, which the Washington Post said was, “the most important novel Jodi Picoult has ever written.”

“I could not ask my readers to re-evaluate their own prejudice and privilege until I confronted my own, which is why this novel was the hardest book I’ve ever written,” Picoult wrote in the Time piece. “I began by thinking back to my childhood in suburbia. I didn’t have black friends, but surely that was because I could count on one hand the number of African-Americans in my school of 2,400 … Right?

“My parents were Jewish, upper-middle class, generous and kind and not prejudiced — yet I could distinctly remember watching the evening news as my parents offhandedly referred to an African-American on the screen with the Yiddish word schwartz. At the time I thought it was simply descriptive — it literally means black — but now, I saw it clearly as a pejorative, a label that separated them from us.”

The story unfolds through the eyes of Jefferson, who is also a Gold Star widow, her lawyer and the father of the child, Turk, who turned to white supremacy after his brother was killed in a car accident caused by an African-American driver. Through these lenses, Picoult confronts three of the voices at the center of some of our country’s most divisive debates in the last five years.

In her essay for Time, Picoult further explains:

“It’s easy to see the headwinds of racism — the obstacles that make it harder for people of color to achieve success. It’s more challenging to see the tailwinds of racism — the ways that being white makes it easier to achieve success. We like to believe that we succeed because we worked hard, or because we were smart. It’s harder to wrap our heads around the idea that the reason we might have a job or have gained admission to a college is a direct result of the fact that a person of color was never given that opportunity.

“Admitting that racism has played a part in our success means admitting that the American dream isn’t quite so accessible to all. No wonder we actively avoid discussing racism — it requires us to completely restructure the fictional narrative we’ve created of our lives. But then again, unlike people of color, we don’t have to talk about race. For us, it’s not omnipresent and it’s not a matter of life or death. We avoid the topic because we can. Ignorance is a privilege, too.”

In an interview with The Guardian, it was pointed out that some of her readers might disagree with her and many might be Trump supporters. Picoult responded, “I really hope so. Because it’s not the people who voted for Clinton who necessarily need this book. It is the Trump supporters who need it.”

JODI PICOULT

Book: “Small Great Things”

When: 2 p.m. Feb. 18 closing address

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

Cost: $24; limited tickets available

Info: savannahbookfestival.org

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