Jodi Picoult is such a well-known author, I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to pick up one of her books. I read Small Great Things in a readalong with 14 other readers and, wow, did it generate a lot of discussion – once you’ve read the synopsis, I’m sure you’ll see why.
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.
Small Great Things is a book that gets better with each page you turn. There are so many elements that make up this book, I’m finding it a hard one to review, so I’m going to dissect this book, spoiler free, into topics I think will portray my overall reading experience.
Firstly, the theme: racism. I’m sure many authors shy away from writing about this topic for fear of causing offence, so I applaud Picoult for taking it on. And I saw a tweet from her in which she spoke about the importance of sensitivity readers, as a non-black author, sensitivity readers will help ensure the portrayal of black characters are not inauthentic or uniformed.
Small Great Things is told from three perspectives: Turk (the white supremacist), Ruth (the black nurse) and Kennedy (Ruth’s white lawyer). Turk is the extreme end of racism, for want of a better way to explain it, his views are extreme and make him instantly unlikeable. I did find a few eye rolling moments in his narrative because the racism was mostly blatant and obvious (fitting for his character), but I would have liked to see some subtler portrayals of racism because that’s the kind that often goes unnoticed.
The perspective of Ruth was an interesting one, and one that sadly has to exist because of racism.
“Black mothers, we have to worry a little bit more. ‘Even walking can be dangerous. Just being can be dangerous, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”
Kennedy represents a grey area, if you like, a white person who doesn’t consider herself racist but becomes aware of inherent racist biases she has because she is white. And for me this was the most interesting perspective. And seeing the development of her and Ruth’s relationship was my favourite part of the novel. And I highly recommend reading the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of this novel because Picoult drops some “truth bombs” that need to be read.
As for the plot itself, I much preferred the second half of this novel because I felt it moved away from the stereotypical portrayals (or the portrayals that we’re all aware of – the white supremacist) and made it a much more thought-provoking read. This novel isn’t without its twist, the twist was good but unnecessary because I think Picoult achieved what she set out to achieve without it, and the twist was designed for the shock factor – and the fact that racism still exists in 2018* is shocking enough (* or in 2016, when this book was first published).
Picoult has a way with words, whether you’re thoroughly enjoying what you’re reading or rolling your eyes until they hurt, there’s no denying she writes in an engaging manner. You are always curious to know what comes next and appreciate the beauty and thoughtfulness of the prose:
“Pride is an evil dragon; it sleeps underneath your heart and then roars when you need silence.”
I highly recommend this novel because I think once you strip back the shock/entertainment factor you have a novel with the power to unite us, in the sense that is an eye-opener to those who haven’t experienced racism and likely never will. As I mentioned before, I think this novel gets better with each page you turn, and I look forward to discovering more of Picoult’s novels.