Monday, January 2, 2017

Small Great Things

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just picked up this book yesterday (December 23, 2016) from the library, the Large Print edition. (The large print editions are usually available more quickly than the regular print.) My "white ladies book club" asked me to lead the discussion for this book when we meet in January. ("Damned if I do, damned if I don't. So I agreed, dammit.) The story centers around, Ruth Jefferson, a black Labor and Delivery nurse who does her routine checkup of a newborn, whose parents are white supremacists and don't want her to touch their child.

I hope the story doesn't evolve the way many novels by white authors attempting to tell of the black experience often do. Jodi Picoult has many best-selling novels under her belt, so maybe I can trust her "chops."

I have to praise Jodi Picoult for her research. If you read the "Author's Note" at the end of the book, you will see that she does not take the subject of racism lightly. She recognizes her own "white privilege" and has taken great pains to do the research and educate herself about the differences in black culture and everyday life. Picoult reached out to numerous black women to educate herself, and enrolled in a social justice workshop called Undoing Racism, to "peel back the veneer of 'who I thought I was from who I truly am.'"

And then there is the whole Neo-Nazi culture. She did her research there too on the white power groups who believe in the separation of the races.

Jodi Picoult is not Kathryn Stockett, the author of "The Help," whose simplistic view of racism offended a lot of black people.

Now for the story, without giving away too much. Ruth Jefferson is a black Labor and Delivery nurse, who is told by her supervisor that the white supremacist parents of the newborn she is checking, don't want her to touch the baby. When the baby subsequently dies, the parents accuse Ruth of murder.

Ruth, who has worked over 20 years in Labor and Delivery at that hospital, is fired from the job, and is arrested in the middle of the night at her home where she lives with her A-student son, Edison, only child of Ruth's late husband who lost his life while deployed in Afghanistan.

Ruth has no resources to hire an attorney, but requests the services of a public defender, Ms. Kennedy McQuarrie, who takes her case. Kennedy lives the life of "white privilege" with little understanding of what "people of color" experience on a daily basis. Ruth and Kennedy have to gain each other's trust, and come to understand what their lives mean to each other.

The scenes of Ruth in jail, then released to find work at McDonald's were heart-breaking. Her son starts to act out, while he tries to make sense of his life, and his future with his mother's life in jeopardy.

Picoult tells the story with back and forth chapters of Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk, the white supremacist. It was difficult to see Ruth in a state of depression. Kennedy stayed on the case and tried to come to an understanding of the daily life of African Americans. The Neo-Nazi chapters were very disturbing.

When we come to the trial, the action is a page-turner. No spoilers here. As I often say, "you have to read it for yourself."

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was another book club selection, following on the heals of "Peace Like a River." The common thread in the two books is faith, and belief in God during a summer in New Bremen, Minnesota, when too many people died. The story is told by young Frank Drum looking back over the years when he "came of age." Frank and his younger brother Jake, mostly inseparable through that summer, found themselves burying a young friend, an unknown "itinerant," and their sister Ariel.

The story unfolded against the backdrop of wealth and privilege of two households of the Brandt family. The older Brandts, Axel and Julia Brandt, owned the brewery in New Bremen which had prospered for more than a hundred years. Emil Brandt was Frank's mother Ruth's good friend since childhood, and a talented musician. Lise Brandt was Emil's younger sister, born deaf and subject to fits of rage. When Emil returns from the war, blind and facially disfigured, it is Lise who takes care of her brother. Lise and Jake, who stutters when he is with strangers, forge a bond. They understand each other even through Lise's deafness.

Nathan Drum, father of Frank and Jake, had studied law, and expected to become an attorney before the war interrupted his life, and the expectations of his wife Ruth. When Nathan returned from the war, he had no interest in law, and chose to become a minister, much to Ruth's dismay.

It is Nathan's gentle nature and unwavering faith that keeps his family together even during the darkest times of their lives. The mysterious death of Ariel shakes them all, and it is Frank and Jake who gradually solve the mystery.

It was a good read. I think my book club will enjoy this one much more than "Peace Like a River." I won't tell how it ended.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

News of the World

News of the WorldNews of the World by Paulette Jiles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Awesome little book of 209 pages. It reminded me a bit of True Grit, except that Jefferson Kyle Kidd is not a drunkard. When we meet him, he has lived through three wars and has reached his seventies. His new "job" has made him a reader of newspapers and journals from all over the world. He earns his living from the coins he receives from the people who gather in various masonic lodges, churches, etc. to listen to Kidd's reports of News of the World. At one of his stops he is offered a fifty-dollar gold piece to return an ten-year-old orphan to her remaining relatives near San Antonio. She is the only survivor after Kiowa raiders slaughtered her parents and sister, leaving a little blond-haired girl to be raised by the Kiowa.

It's a long trail from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, but Kidd takes the job of transporting Johanna, who has lost understanding of the English language, to her relatives, who are German. Johanna has spent four years as a Kiowa, and at first she tries to run away back to them. Over the months of their journey, Kidd learns from Johanna, and Johanna learns from him. She learns some English and Kidd learns the ways of the Kiowa. "All animals are food, except for horses."

Kidd continues his readings along the four-hundred-mile journey, his only income. They must watch for thieves, Comanches and Kiowas. Johanna proves how resourceful and feisty she is and develops an attachment to "Kep-dun" Kidd.

No spoilers here, but the story will tear at your heart.

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Monday, September 5, 2016

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colson Whitehead is one of the novelists whose books I have been meaning to read, but I couldn't quite pin down his genre. Besides being a Pulitzer Prize finalist, he also has a book about zombies. So when The Underground Railroad appeared (even before Oprah put her badge on it), I decided this was the time for me to read this book.

But did I ever have a "Wayminute" moment. By the time I got into the book I realized this was not the Underground Railroad I learned about during "Negro History Week" in seventh grade from a teacher who ignored the official curriculum and taught us about the way runaways were transported through cellars and hidden in attics to escape to the "free states." What we learned about was the "virtual" railroad. Whitehead's railroad is a physical railroad with a real train and conductors.

The story centers around Cora, an orphaned child whose mother had escaped the Randall plantation in Georgia, never to be seen again. When Cora is older she escapes to South Carolina, where she is given a new name, a job as a housekeeper, and lodging in a dormitory with other young women. This is all through a project financed by the US Government. And I thought zombies were far out.

Cora's nemesis is a relentless slave-catcher named Ridgeway. When she thinks she has gotten away, there he is again, ready to return her to Georgia.

There are some fascinating twist and turns throughout the story, some giving real hope for Cora.

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