Wyoming Cold

Wyoming Cold

Dustin had been on autopilot again. He forgot that he laid a snare trap and didn’t expect a female elk in its grasp. He sighed. He hated snares, even though they made prettier trophies—no bolt holes to cover up. The elk was still warm, yet barely alive. He looked behind him expecting to see his big white pickup, but instead saw a bleak array of trees and a winding path. The cabin was far off, so leaving the elk for scavengers while he fetched his truck wasn’t an option. Fuck it. He maneuvered the dead elk, first freeing its neck from the trap. As he cut the line that strangled it, he noticed the dried blood where the wire had cut into the pelt; a sign of struggle. He let loose another sigh of disappointment, snapped the elk’s neck, and began dragging it by the legs. Even for a man of Dustin’s size, this was a task. He shuffled backwards, bent over. The forest echoed with the hiss of the body winding through the pine needles and snow, punctuated by the heavy crunching of Dustin’s boots. He was too tired to be bothered with the physical state of his prize. After all, he had been out in the wilderness for almost a day and a half, with little luck bow-hunting his next taxidermy project. He stopped, freed one of his hands from the elk, and felt the back of his neck. Necks shouldn’t be that easy to snap. He was used to breaking the necks of squirrels and rabbits, but an elk should have been a different story.

Dragging the elk was hard. The further he walked the heavier the body became, and for a moment, he was as lost in the forest as he was in his thoughts. He dropped the legs and looked in every direction: trees, trees, and more trees. The snow was so thick on the ground that it obscured his usual path. He approached the nearest tree to see if it bore the mark of his red spray paint. He was in luck. Autopilot could get a man killed in the wilderness. He had been on autopilot a lot lately. He turned back to the body. It peacefully lay on the powdered ground. He stroked his long ratty beard. How could death could be such a horribly beautiful thing? He grabbed the elk and continued walking.

The white fog of Dustin’s breath cut the cold autumn afternoon air. His joints creaked and squealed. Although he had done this many times before, he couldn’t help but feel a shiver rush down his back to his feet. Something was biting at Dustin lately and it wasn’t a common tick or the frigid air. He dropped the elk with an abrupt yelp. He placed his hands on his lower back and pushed until he was standing up straight. If only I were twenty again. Bad brain, bad back. He thought about how much of an idiot he must have looked like dragging an elk by the legs. At least there weren’t any people around to laugh or poke fun. He thought about the last time he had actually had a conversation with another person. It had been a while. Most of his customers only came by the cabin to drop off or request exotic animals and pelts, not to stick around. That was okay, though. He just needed the fine Wyoming air to keep him company.

After a series of labored stretches, he approached the elk, looked into the washed out eyes of his victim, and began thinking of the last time he saw eyes like those. He was much younger then. It had been his first big kill and it had been much harder than this one. His vision narrowed, and he heard a familiar voice in the recesses of his mind.

Fuckin’ autopilot.

He shook his head, grabbed the elk’s legs, and trudged on. The air was thicker than usual. His breathing was labored. Dustin looked down at his gut. He needed more exercise desperately. It wasn’t long before he was thinking about the last time he ran. Hanna. He was so wrapped up in his thoughts, his boot snagged a root, and he fell. As he tumbled down he smacked his head on a small boulder protruding from the snow. He faded in and out, a half mile from the cabin. Blood flowed into his eyes. Hanna. His vision dimmed. He saw the dark trees. The black seemed endless. He couldn’t help but think how somebody could be so brave—so crazy—so stupid. Hanna.

***

Hanna was a plain and fragile woman who had an attitude very uncharacteristic of her appearance. She didn’t seem at all afraid of Dustin, the back of a rusty pickup, or a cool Wyoming night in the middle of a field. They had been talking all night long. The tailgate sunk under Dustin’s weight while lifting Hanna up, making them almost equal in height. Cans of beer littered the grass beneath them.

“So what brought you out to Wyoming anyway?” Dustin said.

“Heard you had something worth checking out up here.” Her strawberry-blonde hair ruffled in the wind. “I like how cold it can get. Whatever happened to April showers bring May flowers?” They exchanged awkward laughs.

“That can’t be the only reason you brought yourself up here,” Dustin said.

“Well, Benny gave me your name. Said you’re good at what you do.”

Dustin smiled. He and Benny were childhood friends, but he hadn’t seen Benny since he decided to make gator boots in New Orleans.

“Benny, huh? It’s a shame he left. He was really talented at stuffing goats.”

“Stuffing goats, huh?” Hanna chuckled at Dustin’s furrowed brow, “That some kinda euphemism?”

“What? No!” Dustin gulped. “Yea, uh, goats. They’re hard as hell to stuff. I can never get the proportion of their legs just right.” Dustin had never been good at small talk. Hanna’s generous laughter made him uncomfortable. He knew he wasn’t funny. That’s why the frontier of Wyoming had always been appealing to him—not a whole lot of people, not to mention the clientele that taxidermy attracted were often shut-ins like Dustin. Hanna was the exception.

Hanna cleared her throat, breaking the awkward silence. “Yea, Benny and I used to have a thing, but he left me. Said I wasn’t ‘tough enough’ for him.”

Dustin awkwardly put his arm around Hanna’s shoulder to comfort her and said, “You seem plenty tough to me.” His jaw tightened.

Hanna curled into Dustin’s arm, seemingly unfazed by his advances, “So, uh, seeing as I’m a bit new to these parts, Ill need to know good places to stay.”

“Well, the nearest hotel is about thirty miles out from the cabin.”

“Your cabin? Does it have any extra rooms?”

Dustin panicked. “Unfortunately not. Gimme thirty minutes to sober up and I’ll drive you back into town.”

“Why don’t we just sleep under the stars tonight?” She looked Dustin in his big brown eyes and laughed. “Come on. It’ll be fun. Either that, or we could share your bed?”

“You’re not shy at all are you? I’ll need a few more beers to warm myself up.” He said.

“I’ll match you.”

After a while, they were both under the spell of inebriation. Dustin’s jaw loosened up just enough for him to be able to pucker his lips. They kissed.

“Gimme another beer,” she said.

“I don’t want your lap to get cold, baby doll.” Dustin, with a new-found drunken bravado, rested his left hand on her lap. “Maybe we could lay back and enjoy the stars now?”

“You think these stars are going to get you a free pass, huh?” She pushed him away from her with a smile. “They might but another beer definitely will. Hop to it ‘baby doll.’”

Dustin rolled his eyes and laughed as he hopped off of the tailgate. He stumbled to the passenger side of his pickup, opened the door, removed the lid from a little orange cooler, and grabbed a Budweiser. He wished he could afford a better beer, but he figured Hanna was such a brazen woman (and, at this point, so drunk) that she wouldn’t care.

“You picking daisies?” Hanna said.

Dustin laughed again and shut the door. He made his way back to the bed of the truck. “Here you go, princess.” He tossed the beer up to Hanna, who caught it with one hand.

“You see that shit?” she said.

“Wow. We should sign you up for the big leagues.” Dustin grinned. He loved her attitude. He loved her hair too, and her eyes, but mostly he loved her neck. It was slim and gentle—like the crane Hanna had brought to him to be stuffed.  He took his seat next to Hanna on the tailgate and began to rub her back. She cooed and grabbed his knee. It wasn’t often an attractive female customer asked to grab a few beers under the stars, let alone grab his knee.

Hanna slid her hand slowly up Dustin’s leg. Don’t think the Budweiser was a problem at all. Dustin leaned back, anxious but embracing the moment. Her hand was inches from Dustin’s belt when all at once, she gave his upper thigh a light pat and jumped off the back of the tailgate, barely sticking the landing. She whipped around to face him, but stumbled against his lap. He could smell the beer on her breath as she looked up and laughed at her own clumsiness.

They kissed for a second time.

“Why don’t we play a game?” Hanna said.

“What kind of game?”

Hanna looked towards the woods. “Hide and seek?” She pointed in the direction of the trees.

 Are you crazy?” said Dustin.

Hanna made a beeline for the woods and disappeared in the pitch darkness of the trees. Dustin placed his beer on the edge of the truck and took off after her. He had to get her. She was drunk and didn’t know the land like he did.

“Hey!” Dustin screamed.

The tree line gave a silent reply.

Dustin ran to the side of his truck, opened the door, and grabbed a flashlight from the glove box. He turned a little too quickly on his heel and stumbled. Brushing himself off, he bolted toward the forest. Once he breached the trees he cried out, “Hanna? These woods are dangerous—traps and predators everywhere.”

Dustin ran through the woods faster than he’d ever run. His tracking skills were rusty, and it was hard to see in the darkness, but he was still careful enough to mind the traps. He bolted by a tree, but something caught his face. He yelled, but realized it was a cloth hanging from one of the branches. He pulled it off and straightened it out in his hands. It was Hanna’s blouse. She was close. She wasn’t responding to his calls, but he kept a steady pace deeper and deeper into the woods. He stumbled on shoes, then pants, then a bra.

“Alrighty sweetness! Where you at?”

He heard a scream come from his left. He jumped at the sound and ran to the nearest tree. He turned off his flashlight and began navigating the darkness, feeling his way to the scream in case an animal got ahold of Hanna.

He approached one of his own snares. “Hanna!” There was an ever growing pit in his stomach. He heard rustling in the pine needles to his right, so he pointed the flashlight there and turned it on—afraid of what he would find.

There she was: naked and seizing. His hunter instincts monopolized all other senses, and he tended to Hanna like he’d tend to a trapped and frenzied animal. She was snared by her ankle, so he held her tight and cut the snare loose with a pocket knife. “It’s alright baby, you’re gonna be just fine,” he said as he cradled her shaking body, trying to calm her.

He tried to flip her over onto her back, but she was stuck on something. One good pull to her side and he saw the blood. She had fallen on a small stake that Dustin placed as a marker. It had punctured her chest pretty deeply.

“Holy shit.” Dustin’s hands shook. He propped Hanna up, got behind her and laid her in his lap. She was still seizing pretty badly, so Dustin knew he had to do something. It would take a good couple of hours before he could get her the medical attention she needed. They were a forty-five minutes away from his cabin. She’d be dead by then. He slid his right arm under her chin and grabbed the left side of her face with his hand. She was almost wriggling too hard, but he managed to cross his arm around the backside of her head, lift and twist.

***

Dustin lay just a few feet away from the elk, but he could hardly see it because night had fallen and blood dried over his eyes. Fuck. He hoped the body wasn’t as frozen as he felt. As he lay useless, he could still hear the crunch of Hanna’s neck. If he didn’t get the body back in time, it would attract predators. So he continued through the woods, one hand on the elk, the other pressing the wound on his head.

The screen door of his cabin was a welcome sight. As he began to hoist his kill over his shoulder, he started crying. The flow of the tears fell onto the bruised neck of the elk. This is the last time. No more after this. He hauled the limp corpse up the stairs, through the door, and into the kitchen, where he had installed a large walk-in freezer to keep his game before stuffing it. He had sorted the animals from small to large. He worked his way past the squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. He passed the crane and stopped for a second, admiring its beauty. What a damn shame. He continued on through the freezer until he finally made his way to the elk, moose, and black bear. For a moment, Dustin felt as lifeless as the game. He kept walking, stopping just feet away from the furthest corner. You’ll be in good company.

The back corner of the walk-in was dark. Dustin adjusted his grip on the elk and held the body so that he was cradling it gently. He placed the elk with care on the floor, right next to Hanna’s frozen corpse. He repositioned her body, and laid down next to her and the elk. He stroked Hanna’s long, beautiful neck until he froze. You’ll be safe here, baby doll.

 

About the Author

Logan Brown

Logan Brown

Writer & Editor

As a senior Theatre and Dance student and general disappointment to his father, Logan gives a new meaning to ‘old dogs, new tricks.’ By that we mean he tricked a bunch of old dogs into relative sapience, and demanded they give him feedback on his creative works—aptly explaining the following manifesto we tried to obtain from him while he was eating garbage in a Shoney’s parking lot: “Woof, woof! Arrrrggghhh ARRRGGHHH.” Logan’s favorite thing is comedy at the physical expense of others. Furthermore, his favorite romantic activity is watching geese attacks on YouTube. He seems excited to begin his journey with Reduced Pulp, but it might be the typhus fever getting to him. If you wish to contact Logan, place a bowl of golden berries outside your front door.

Taming of the Shrew

Taming of the Shrew

They stare at her through a plexi-

glass ceiling, her difference

a viable reason for suspicion.

They watch with squinted eyes

and furrowed brows, observing her every

movement with calculation, caution,

condescension.  

 

They decide when she eats,

sleeps, is auctioned off to the

next zookeeper who will

keep her like a prized possession,

locked inside a trophy case.

A beautiful thing to be marveled at,

a beautiful mind to be misshapen,

manipulated and mastered.

 

They tape a sign at her feet,

“Please don’t touch the exhibit,”

as if another’s fingerprints

across her skin is a symptom

of impurity though they never

bothered to ask if she desired

the burn of the their hands on

her neck— choking, controlling

coercing.

 

They cut her vocal chords one

by one. “Insurance,” they say,

ensuring that she will never have

the ability to cry out against their

abuse. As if her body belongs to them,

an object to be owned. As if ‘insurance’

excuses the voice they

have taken from her. They come

for her tongue next, snipping it

like the feathers of a caged bird—

demoralizing, debilitating,

dehumanizing.

 

They beat her and break her

until they are left with the shell

of an anarchist.

They infiltrate every atom of her

being until she is programmed to

be the perfect woman—

submissive, servile,

silent.

 

They claim their genius,

reveling in the success of

their experiment.

Science is not a game of chance.

Even the most headstrong

horses can be broken.

 

But can they be

blamed? They were only following

Shakespeare’s lead.

About the Author

Sydney Thier

Sydney Thier

Co-Founder + Co-Editor

Sydney Esther Thier is a writer of words, animal sweater enthusiast and self-proclaimed raging feminist. As a junior SMAD Journalism/Independent Scholars Storytelling double major with minors in Creative Writing/Music Industry/Women’s and Gender Studies, Sydney enjoys taking at least thirty credits a semester and has banned sleep from her daily routine. Her favorite past times include petting dogs, writing parody sketches about Bernie Sanders and shouting ‘Matriarchy rising like a loaf of warm bread,’ from the highest of heights. Her future goal is to be the show runner of her own original TV series along with ruler of the world. Sydney is the cofounder and current co-editor in chief at Reduced Pulp.

Luna

Luna

The moon is formed from many tiny moons.

Debris from earth once flung through stale abyss

took years to make a thing worth looking at.

A girl is not unlike the moon; slowly

she cultivates her moonlets; no one sees

her fuse, explode, collapse, collect, take shape.

Admire the deconstructed moon for all

her parts, recycled to fit an unwashed dream,

(she can not see the finish—wants to burn

so others will notice her midnight ooze)

Or just ignore the nebula until

her fullness gets to be too much for night

and seeps through clouded gloom reminding you

to count your breaths, recall you have so few.

She takes the impacts, builds from earth’s loose dust.

Her craters endure; you howl at her pull.

She’s not an ornament; she moves the tides.

About the Author

Julia Lewis

Julia Lewis

Writer & Editor

Julia is a junior Media Arts and Design major with a concentration in Digital Video and Cinema
pursuing minors in sociology and creative writing. When she isn’t writing dance-heavy sketch comedy and managing the PR for Maddy Night Live, she’s adding commas to other people’s writing as a copy-editor for HerCampus JMU. Though her current career goal is to write for television, her varied interests (including poetry, layout design, and creative essay-writing) keep her in a fun state of uncertainty about the future.
She has been the recipient of the Blanche Garrett Memorial Endowment and the Madison Screenwriting Scholarship, both within the School of Media Arts and Design. Julia is a writer and editor for Pulp

A Series of Unfortunate Events Season One: Netflix’s Very Good Try

A Series of Unfortunate Events Season One: Netflix’s Very Good Try

 

If you are interested in reviews with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other review. In this, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.

Much like the series itself, the history of Lemony Snicket’s work is long and complicated. The series, stretching 13 novels, details the miserable misadventures of the Baudelaire orphans and their repeated escapes from the clutches of the villainous Count Olaf as he attempts to steal their parents’ fortune. The books are penned by Daniel Handler under the penname Lemony Snicket, who describes the tonal style of the series as “suburban gothic,” satirizing Victorian gothic literature. The books indeed deal with themes far darker than the average children’s series, including child abuse, murder, and suicide. While some criticized Snicket’s material as too intense for its intended audience, the series was a whopping success, collectively selling over 65 million copies and being translated into 41 different languages.  In 2004, the series was adapted into a film by Paramount Pictures starring Jim Carrey. While the film broke even, it had a tepid reception from both the fan base and general movie going public.

And now here we are. It 2017, and on Friday the 13th of Janurary, Netflix has released their version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” starring Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith as the Baudelaire orphans and Neil Patrick Harris as the nefarious Count Olaf. While a large improvement over the 2004 film, the series remains a bit of a mixed bag. Apparently there is something about this material that requires it to be seriously altered before making its way to the screen, even when you have the original author writing your teleplay.

Let’s start with the good stuff, because there is certainly plenty here to be admired. First off all, the casting is on point. While the Baudelaire orphans detached performances are slightly off-putting in the first episode, they end up providing a wonderful foil for the crazy world they inhabit. This world is brimming with a wide array of highly entertaining, if highly incompetent, adults who are either out to protect or to murder our protagonists. Highlights of these colorful characters include K. Todd Freeman as the bumbling lawyer, Mr. Poe, and Aasif Mandvi as the charismatic herpetologist (a word which here means: someone who studies reptiles), Montgomery Montgomery. Count Olaf’s theatre troupe is also far better realized than the 2004 film, and every second they’re on screen steals the show. This brings us to the elephant in the room: Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. Harris is… fine. He does a good job. He’s fine. However… he’s just not Count Olaf. Much in the same vein as Jim Carrey (who was a bit of a better fit, but not by much), he is simply too likable to play this character as he was portrayed in the books. Like the Baudelaires, you should dread every time he rears his ugly head in each new situation, when in fact here he’s the most likable character in the show. I suppose these castings are a reflection of the fact that it’s a kid’s show and portraying the character as-written may be a little too dark for the screen (remember, he straight-up murders people), and as I said, it’s fine. He’s perfectly serviceable and fun to watch, but he’s not Count Olaf. Surprisingly, the real standout performance of the show is Patrick Warburton as the sullen narrator, Lemony Snicket. Warburton, known largely for his broad comedic roles, actually gives a very restrained performance here. Much like the books, for the darkly comedic material to be pulled off correctly, it has to be taken completely seriously. It cannot be comedic to the characters or else it’s not dramatic or funny to us. Warburton does just this, gloomily striding, unnoticed by all but the audience, through the world he weaves with his words.

The visual interpretation of Snicket’s world is delightfully odd. Instead of going for the grandiose skew of the 2004 film, Netflix’s adaptation is a little more quirky. Most of the sets are built on a soundstage, combining cgi and stylized sets for an offputtingly heightened world. None of the locations look entirely real, but neither do they look entirely fake. The Baudelaires, dressed in colorful pastels, stand starkly against the gloomy greys and browns of their unfortunate reality. The directorial style, somewhat reminiscent of Wes Anderson, involves meticulously centered shots and carefully planned angles, yet again serving to heighten the world into an almost doll-like composition.

What’s interesting here is how the material is presented in contrast with the previous adaptation. As stated earlier, the 2004 film decided to tell the story the story with a little more bombast, using sweeping visuals and arcing scores to create a sense epicness and importance. Here in Netflix’s adaptation, the world surrounding the children is inherently much more docile, making a clear choice to appear less realistic. This may make it sounds like the film was being truer to the books’ gothic nature, but this isn’t necessarily the case. The film, while visually heavy and dark, was actually quite a silly piece of filmmaking. The script itself was lacking, and Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf was so ridiculous that he never felt like an actual threat (You could almost see the moments where “[Jim Improvises]” were written into the script). The darker themes of the book were present, but watered down, and some of the more poignant moments were removed entirely for a more audience-pleasing romp. Netflix’s series, however, doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Snicket’s work. The lengths they’ve taken to separate the visual world from reality allows them to play much more sinister without making it too intense for children, a line which the books always walked very carefully. In a book, an author has the freedom to write for the reader’s interpretation. The material is only as dark or heavy as the capacity of the reader’s imagination. When transferred to screen, however, very little is left to the imagination, and a child can become easily frightened when presented with something that they are unable to rationalize as they might while reading. In the end, Netflix’s gamble pays off, and they are able to give themselves freedom to tell the story as it is written rather than being forced to sand down the edges.

But here in lies the biggest problem with Netflix’s adaptation: they don’t tell the story as it is written. There’s a lot more. There’s a lot different. The largest complaint of the 2004 film was how much it diverged from the source material. In trying to cram the first three books into one movie, the film reorganized, restructured, and flat out changed major plot elements in order to make it cohesive much to the dismay of fans of the series. I was thrilled when I heard that Netflix was taking on the project, as the episodic nature of the books could be presented in a format where they would actually make sense without reformatting. What I didn’t take into account was how Netflix intends for you to watch the series: the binge.

Yes, it’s no secret that Netflix expects you to binge its shows. Entire seasons are released at once, every episode ends on a cliff hanger, and now there’s even a handy dandy button for skipping theme songs when they grow too repetitive on your 13th episode of the day. A Series of Unfortunate Events is monotonous, but that’s kind of the point. Every time the Baudelaires find a new home, and every time Count Olaf shows up in a new disguise that fools everyone but the children. The joke is that it keeps happening and that is allowed to keep happening. A Series of Unfortunate Events is exactly as its title suggests. However, Netflix has taken great length to keep you interested as you power through all eight episodes in one day. Events are scrambled to keep you guessing, plot points are changed to make them less repetitive, and elements from all the other books are brought in to justify each book having two episodes. In most cases they re-structuring isn’t bad per-se, it’s just comes off as cluttered.

The same cannot be said for what they add. By far the weirdest choice in the whole show is all of the plot elements that are included here that were not in the books whatsoever. And there are a lot of them. A lot. One of the great joys of the books was the omnipresent sense of mystery and conspiracy. As the series progresses, it becomes dense with unsolved questions, and even by the series’ end most of them remain unanswered. When the last book came out when I was a kid, I was furious that it didn’t tie up any of the loose ends promised in the rest of the books. Re-reading it as an adult, however, it’s absolutely brilliant. From chapter one of the first book, you are warned that the story does not have a happy ending. You are told that the story will waste your time and will only serve to bring you misery and woe. And it does. By the end, you are just more unhappy and frustrated than you began. It’s stupid, it’s infuriating, and it’s possibly one of the greatest tricks ever played by an author. And the beauty of it is that he never tricks you. He warned you and you didn’t listen. It’s perfect. So why then, eleven years later, does the same author come back and explain everything? Seriously, almost every mystery is explained. And in season one no less. Season one. It just confounds me how Handler subverts his own beautifully crafted story after finishing it in such a gutsy manner. Again, much like the re-structured material, the added material isn’t bad. In fact, some of it is extremely entertaining. However, unlike the re-structured material, it truly does act as an overall detriment to the piece as a whole and the overall mythos that Handler/Snicket has so meticulously woven.

So, yah. It’s a mixed bag. A highly watchable, highly entertaining mixed bag. People who have read the books will enjoy it, but become increasingly annoyed by the inconsistencies. People who haven’t read the books will enjoy it, but will miss out on the sense of mystery that pervaded the books and made the series intriguing in the first place. The show simply tells you too much, and in the end will probably end up making no one perfectly happy. But hey, they warned you to look away.

About the Author

Rob Condas

Rob Condas

Writer & Editor

Rob Condas is a sophomore at James Madison University, and is currently pursuing a B.A. in theatre. His fashion sense has been described of that of a “hipster Mr. Rogers,” which he begrudgingly does not dispute.
He hopes to someday run a creepy old book shop that disappears the day after you buy one of its mysterious items. His position at Reduced Pulp is that of editor
and writer.

Not-So-Great: Reviewing Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things”

Not-So-Great: Reviewing Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things”

Overall rating: 3.5/5

Jodi Picoult is known for nuanced storylines that weigh the personal against the moral and the legal, and for effortlessly weaving multiple storylines together that leave you feeling almost out of breath by the end of the book. Her newest release, however, falls unfortunately flat. Small Great Things is about a neo-Nazi couple who refuse to let a black nurse care for their newborn baby, and as a result the baby dies (an event about which I have a lot to say). The book then follows the nurse, Ruth Jefferson, as she is blamed and sued for the baby’s death, and explores the problems exclusive to black women and their relations with white people. It is a well-written book, if formulaic, but falls flat due to both its predictability and its surface-level understanding of race relations and the black community.

First of all, I’d like to talk about one of the major plot points: the death of baby Davis. The book jacket does not say the baby dies—only that he goes into “cardiac distress”. The reader goes into it expecting trauma, but not death. Fundamentally, I disagree with killing off children for the sake of the plot. It’s cruel and it’s unnecessary. Even if Picoult and her team of editors deemed it necessary, there should have been a warning. Picoult’s audience is primarily made up of mothers, many of whom have experienced the death or near-death of a child and were forced to relive the experience when reading Small Great Things–myself included, though I’m not a mother, just a big sister. Simply, I find that irresponsible.

But onto the structure of the book. It has all the Picoult trademarks: narration from multiple points of view, a single mother, a court case, an inspiring relationship between lawyer and client. Structurally, it is identical to nearly every other book Picoult has written. This is not necessarily a bad thing; but when you, like me, have read most of her books, it starts to feel like you’re reading the same book over and over, just with different characters and court cases. I guess I can’t quite fault Picoult for this formula, as it has gotten her on the NYT bestsellers list nearly a dozen times, and if Small Great Things was a person’s first Picoult novel, they wouldn’t know the pattern. However, I’m longing for some variation in Picoult’s storytelling, and also feel like this format doesn’t lend itself well to every story.

Now onto the story. Small Great Things is a story about race. And Picoult makes sure you KNOW it’s about race. It is told primarily from the point of view of Ruth Jefferson, a black woman; but it was written by a white woman who, despite all her best intentions and formal research, can never understand the lived experiences of black women. It’s obvious that Picoult did extensive research (and not only because of the disclaimer she puts in the epilogue), because she retells the stories and sentiments of black women. Retells. She doesn’t interpret. She doesn’t really understand. She simply retells. While well-intentioned (in the epilogue, she even begs white people to “do and be better”, which is a great sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with), this is problematic in the way that it’s a white woman speaking for (and speaking over) people of color. I was almost able to overlook this until the climax of the novel, which involves the white lawyer literally forcing Ruth to be quiet and then speaking for her. The white lawyer has just had an epiphany about racism, and how she’s complicit in it, and then she doesn’t even let a black woman speak! Ultimately she wins the case with her speech, but holy performative white allyship, Batman! Also, in my opinion, the neo-Nazi man, Turk, was portrayed far too sympathetically–also disturbing when you remember that this book was written by a white woman. He shows very small signs of doubting the neo-Nazi lifestyle, obviously meant to show that he isn’t a monster, but those signs of doubt are so small they’re nearly insignificant. He hesitates for a moment before shooting a caricature of a Jewish man. Wow. How redeemable. I believe that MOST people would hesitate before shooting a cardboard Jew–or, you know, would NOT SHOOT AT ALL. In the end, too, he ends up doing a complete 180—marrying a woman of color, getting his swastika tattoos removed, joining the Anti-Defamation league–for no reason but to show us…what? That neo-Nazis can change? That we should see the good in white supremacists? With white supremacists literally trying to take over the government, that’s a pretty dangerous sentiment to put out there.

With all that being said, I do not believe Picoult realizes what she’s done or is necessarily racist (even though her depiction of non-educated black folk is so simplistic and stereotypical that it almost hurts to read). Again, I think she’s well-intentioned and really wants this book to provoke thought in white people. But in the end, what it actually does is make white women pat themselves on the back for not being as racist as the neo-Nazi (who ends up forgiven anyway!!! That part really boils my turnips, it does. No forgiveness for Nazis). Instead of being hard and unflinching, this book just does not dive deep enough into race relations, and creates a self-congratulatory feedback loop instead of the dialogue that I’m sure Picoult intended.

About the Author

Tabby Rose Sawyer

Tabby Rose Sawyer

Writer & Editor

A sophomore double-majoring in English and Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication, Tabby can usually be found yelling. She’s on the executive boards for both Maddy Night Live and The Madisonians, and works as a barista for the on-campus Starbucks. She grew up in Virginia Beach, but no, she does not know how to surf. That’s a hurtful stereotype.

Tabby’s not entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, but she’s narrowed it down to either being an especially funny politician or an unusually political comedian. Either way, she knows she wants to do exactly what she’s doing now: write, drink too much coffee, and be angry.

Tabby also writes for The Odyssey and The Tab JMU. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tabisaurus_ !