Jodi Picoult has written a well researched and really difficult exposé on race relations and just what those two words really mean, in this, her latest book. She believes that there will be those on all sides of the issue who will find fault with her novel, but she also strongly believes that it had to be written. The pages turn themselves as the reader will be riveted to the story as it develops.
The novel is about a nurse, Ruth Jeffries, who is suddenly prohibited from treating a male newborn because of her skin color. Ruth Jeffries is a black labor and delivery nurse. Brit and Turk Bauer, the, young, proud parents of their infant son, Davis, are White Supremacists. Ruth is rightly offended when her superior agrees with the Bauer’s who have refused to have her, a person of color, interact with either their child or them. Ruth is summarily removed from the case.
The mother of Davis is Brit Bauer. She grew up without a mother and, instead, was raised by her father Francis, a leader of a white supremacist movement. Her husband, Kurt Bauer, was basically her father’s protégé. On his head, he had a tattoo of a swastika. On the knuckles of each hand was a word. On one it said love and on the other hate. He ran a racist blog. Neither he nor his wife had ever learned how to handle their anger in any other way than to strike out and viciously hurt others. They have actually enjoyed their violent impulses and relished in the pain they caused others. It seemed to be the only way they could relieve their own anger and pain. Yet, while Kurt is cruel to others, he is kind to Brit.
Ruth was a very experienced nurse with two decades of experience under her belt. She was the only nurse of color on the neonatal floor. She was well thought of and had an excellent reputation, but after she was removed from the care of the child by her superior, she discovered that her friendship with the other staff members was actually superficial. When, in a terrible tragedy, the child, Davis Bauer, dies after a routine circumcision, no one supports her when the Bauers accuse her of murder. Rather their fingers point in her direction, and they find it too easy to assume she might have actually deliberately killed the baby in an act of vengeance against his parents. She finds herself alone. The friendships she believed she had in the hospital were only a façade. Many of her so called friends and co-workers were only too eager to make her out to be the villain in the emergency situation that took the life of Davis Bauer, even though they had placed her in the impossible situation of saving the life of a child she was forbidden to touch. In desperation, she turns to her sister, someone who lives in the ghetto, someone whom she has tried to rise above and therefore distance herself from. She finds solace there, even though she does not agree with all of her sister’s ideas, she knows she will be the only one there for her and her son, Edison. Ruth is a widow. Her husband was killed fighting for the United States, in Afghanistan.
When the police broke into her apartment, handcuffed her son and herself, then trashed her home searching it, she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was because of her skin color that they were being treated so roughly. She was hauled off in the middle of the night in her nightgown and arraigned. Until this point, she had believed that she was accepted in the wider world of whites as an equal. She spoke well, was highly educated and got her nursing degree from Yale University. She led a quiet life with a low profile, living in a middle class white neighborhood so that her son Edison could get a better education. She wanted him to grow up in a world that was colorblind. She was naïve. That was not the real world. She had merely hoped that if she believed it, she could make it real; she wanted to believe that she might fit into the world of the whites.
Kennedy McQuarrie was a Public Defender who believed she was colorblind. She was in for a rude awakening. As they got to know each other, Ruth and Kennedy learned to see the world through each other’s eyes. Kennedy had a lot to learn from Ruth and Ruth had her eyes opened by Kennedy. Kennedy, however, learned far more. She discovered that race was indeed an issue even when it was denied as one. When leaving a store together, it was Ruth’s packages that were inspected to see if she had shoplifted; it was Ruth’s ID that was demanded while Kennedy was ignored and waved on without a moment’s hesitation. She was not suspect. She was white. Even the reader who believed there was not a racist bone in his/her body, both black and white, will discover that underneath every rock, there is a seed hiding, even when one is least aware of its presence.
At first, I was one of the people that the author said would find fault with her book. I didn’t like the fact that she painted one group with a broad brush as if only they were racists and Progressives were the Saints waiting in the wings. Personally, I do not believe that Fox News or all Conservatives are racist as a group, in the way she depicted them. However, as she developed her narrative, it became more apparent that she was aiming for another, larger truth in which everyone had shared blame for the racism that is denied in society, and that truth pointed to a larger group that crossed color, cultural, religious and political lines. She titled the book with part of a quote from Martin Luther King, and its brevity belies its profundity. In essence, at the core of this story is the definition of the words equality vs. equity, with equity developing as the most meaningful goal and the lack of it is a broad and plausible explanation of the problems that lie behind the subtle racism that exists everywhere, even where it is denied the loudest.
I believe the book could have a great impact on those who read it. In its honesty, it is forthright; in its understanding of the underlying causes of racism, it is intuitive; in its relationship to true events, it is inspired; in its pretending that racism does not exist, it exposes the pretense that itself is a form of racism.
Based on events that occurred in the real world this book twists and turns from tragedy to fairytale and its surprise ending comes out of the blue. However, it is the reality of the resemblance to actual events that prevents the book from crossing over into the land of fairytales, at times.
Picoult uses the terms equity vs. equality to describe the tragedy of racism. According to her, equality sounds fair, but it is equity that is fair. One is for show, the other is for real. One demands only equivalence and uniformity; the other demands justice and impartiality, both of which appear to be largely absent in today’s society.
***The narrators added a greater depth to this story than the print book, I think, and I recommend it.