Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
Ruth Jefferson, a labor and delivery nurse in a Connecticut hospital, has more than twenty years of experience under her belt. But one night during a routine check on a patient and her new baby, she is explicitly told NOT to treat them ever again. The reason? Ruth is African American and the baby’s parents are white supremacists.
Later on when an emergency comes in and things get hectic, Ruth is assigned nursery duty. While attending to a room full of newborns, she notices the baby she’s been instructed not to touch is not breathing. Ruth doesn’t know what to do. She’s been told not to provide medical care for the child so she hesitates before deciding to perform CPR – a costly mistake.
The baby does not survive and Ruth is charged with murder. She insists she’s innocent and claims the case against her is racially motivated. Her public defender, Kennedy, cautions that using race in a court of law will not win Ruth her acquittal. As the trial progresses, Ruth’s case becomes a media sensation as trials with racial connotations often do.
Jodi Picoult could have not picked a more timely moment in history for her latest novel. Known for her moving fiction that usually delves into a legal or moral dilemma, she tackles racism, Black Lives Matter, the media and cultural tension that goes along with social justice movements. An excellent writer who knows how to craft an engaging story, choosing to write a narrative that featured an African American woman at a time when racial tensions are high and often front page news, is a very bold move for a bestselling author.
In fact, Picoult herself even questioned if she could write the story and told NPR , “I really second-guessed myself. I thought, you know, do I even have the right to write this story? I am a white woman. I have not lived this life. This is not my story to tell.” The idea persisted though and Picoult decided it was too important not to write, stating that “I began to think about trying to tell the story from three different points of view – the African-American nurse, the white public defender and the skinhead father – as they all confronted their beliefs about power and privilege and race.”
Undeniably, Small Great Things is an incredibly powerful story. However, it felt a little off that a white female author was writing from a black woman’s perspective. Because of this fact, the story suffers from a lot of stereotypes and cliches about both African American life. Had she enlisted the help of an African American author to write the parts about Ruth, it would have made for a more authentic voice and an even more compelling story.
There are also quite a few jabs at conservatives – the KKK member is a member of the Tea Party and when doing background research on a pool of potential jurors, anyone with a Trump sign in their yard is weeded out. Picoult no doubt has many conservative readers that are not racists (or Trump supporters) and stereotyping them as such is definitely a misstep on her part.
The book also gets a bit bogged down towards the middle as readers are waiting for the case to go to trial and later on near the end of the book plot goes a bit astray when Ruth’s own son becomes involved in a legal situation himself. A tacked on “Six Years Later” afterward feels like an afterthought and probably wasn’t necessary.
Those caveats aside, Picoult is still a very effective storyteller and Small Great Things is a thought provoking book that brings forth some interesting discussion pieces about how the subject of racism is constantly evolving in America. No matter your own skin color or political leanings- read it with an open mind, try to think about the issues from a different perspective and ponder this quote that inspired the title:
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way” – Martin Luther King, Jr.