Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?
Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.
With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.
This is another example of a book that I tore through and couldn’t put down… but with time passing after finishing the book, I find my reaction to it shifting the more I think about it.
The story itself is completely absorbing. We have three point-of-view characters: Ruth, the African-American nurse; Turk, the White Supremacist father; and Kennedy, the white public defender who describes herself early on as someone who doesn’t see color (race) at all.
It’s an interesting approach. We often see the same sets of interactions through more than one person’s eyes, so that when Kennedy makes a point about how supportive she is and how she’s devoted herself to defending people of color, Ruth perceives these statements as coming from a woman of privilege who does not even recognize how her privilege pervades her own life. This leads to interactions throughout the book in which Kennedy is caught short, forced to recognize the unacknowledged racism that informs her life, despite considering herself a force for good and a champion of social justice.
Picoult makes many good and important points in this novel about the way privilege and racism go hand in hand, and how people with privilege seem not to recognize that for one person to succeed because of their skin color and economic status, someone else must not. Where I think Picoult is on somewhat shaky ground is in her chapters using Ruth’s POV. While any author should be able to write convincingly through the voice of his/her characters, whether or not they have anything in common personally with those characters, the use of Ruth’s voice here occasionally made me uncomfortable.
Should a white author be able to write as a black character? Yes, of course. And yet, so much of Ruth’s POV is focused on her experiences as a black woman, explaining how her life has been shaped by boxes society assigns her and the implicit racism in her daily encounters. At some points, it started to feel like appropriation to me. Picoult is essentially explaining blackness to her readers — presumably, a mostly white audience — and it can feel disingenuous.
At the same time, I understand from a few blog mentions I’ve seen that the publisher made early copies of the novel available without the author being disclosed (the concept was #ReadWithoutPrejudice), and I wonder about that experience. Might I have felt differently about Ruth’s voice if I didn’t know the identity of the author? It’s possible.
On the other hand, I didn’t have a problem with her portrayal of Turk, the white supremacist who is also a grieving father and devoted, loving husband. Understanding from within his mind how his life has led him to this point and how he became such a strong believer and advocate for hate is fascinating and informative, and also scary as hell.
Kennedy feels like a pretty typical Picoult lawyer. She’s a working mother, a dedicated professional looking for her opportunity to take on a case she feels passionately about, and thinks she knows about justice in America by virtue of her work as a public defender. Ruth forces her to confront her own assumptions and biases and tear down a bit of the wall that keeps her from seeing just how her white privilege has enabled her to be the person she is now.
In terms of the plot, it’s a doozy of a set-up. At the parents’ request, a note is added to the baby’s medical file saying that no African American personnel are to touch the baby. But Ruth is the only African American staff member in the labor and delivery ward, so this is clearly an order targeted specifically at Ruth, and only Ruth. I wish the book had explored the legalities of this a bit more. Hospitals honor patients’ requests, when reasonable — but this seems so blatantly unreasonable that it never should have stood as an order to begin with.
I had a hard time accepting that the criminal case could or would go forward as described. There was no evidence against Ruth to begin with, and the rush to judgment against her seems simply unrealistic. I just wasn’t convinced at all by the set-up of the legal case.
Further, Kennedy tells Ruth repeatedly that race is never brought into the courtroom — that it’s a sure-fire way to alienate the jury, and that it JUST ISN’T DONE. That may be, but I wish Picoult had fleshed this out a bit more with examples or explanations. This becomes a turning point in the trial, and only knowing that it’s not done because Kennedy says so doesn’t really drive home the real-life situation. I wanted to know — is this a plot device, or is this really borne out in real-life courtrooms? As it was written, I wasn’t really convinced, and like Ruth, didn’t buy that there wouldn’t be merit in telling the story as it played out in terms of the race relations of the people involved.
Finally, there’s a plot twist at the very end. I haven’t read every single Jodi Picoult novel, but I’ve read enough to know that a huge twist is pretty standard for her books. I won’t get into what the twist is in Small Great Things, but I will say that I thought it was rather unbelievable and unnecessary. The story didn’t need it, and the timing and delivery were just odd.
Overall, I’d say that Small Great Things is a fast and compelling read, but that it left me feeling like I’d been lectured to in a way that detracts a bit from the power of the story. The story itself is complicated and twisty, although there are so many side elements thrown in (the charismatic TV personality, the darker skinned sister who chooses to refuse the path that Ruth has taken, the wealthy white family that Ruth’s mother worked for as a maid for 50 years) that by the end, the courtroom scenes, which should be the dramatic climax of the book, feel a little rushed and curtailed.
From reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, it’s clear that Picoult poured her heart and soul into her research for this book, and has embarked on her own personal journey to recognize the inherent racism that’s a part of white privilege. I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, but all this earnestness doesn’t necessarily translate into great fiction. When the storyline takes a back seat to the message, it can start feeling overly preachy. I was fascinated by the unfolding story and become involved in Ruth’s struggles and her quest for true justice, but the use of POVs and the shoe-horning in of everything Picoult has learned about race in America weaken the power of the legal drama at the center of the narrative.
Still, I’d say that Picoult’s fanbase will of course love Small Great Things, and I’d recommend it to others as well. Jodi Picoult’s books are always thought-provoking, and she’s a master when it comes to taking even abhorrent characters and showing their humanity. She lets us see Turk and his wife as bereaved parents, and their pain is no less real and heartfelt than anyone else’s, despite the fact that they’re absolutely revolting in every other way. This, I think, is a great example of the power of Picoult’s writing: She takes us inside lives and minds we might otherwise never see, and always manages to show us the sparks of humanity to be found in the most unexpected places.
Title: Small Great Things
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 11, 2016
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley