I am going to do my best to do this book the justice it deserves. This is going to be less of a review of the book and more about what this book taught me…
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine
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.
I know fans of Jodi Picoult have been disappointed in some of her more recent works, but I’m here to tell you that Jodi is back! I’ve read a few of Picoult’s books: My Sister’s Keeper, Plain Truth, and Nineteen Minutes, all of which I loved, but Small Great Things is my favorite Picoult book thus far.
I actually read Small Great Things coming off of my shock at reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. In The Underground Railroad, we are really shown the horrific truths about the history of slavery in America. In contrast, Small Great Things tackles modern day racism and white privilege. I learned so much from both of these books.
In Small Great Things, Picoult fleshes out three very distinct voices in Ruth, Turk, and Kennedy. Ruth, a L&D nurse and woman of color; Turk, a white supremist active in “the movement”; Kennedy, a white defense attorney. The three different perspectives here work so well together. Honestly, I don’t think this book would have worked as well as it did with only one or two perspectives, they are all needed to get the message across.
Ruth was such an amazing character; she’s hardworking, proud, and smart. She has worked hard for everything in her life, never receiving a hand out. Ruth is put into a situation where she really is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. Does she help the baby and go against the parent’s wishes, or does she respect the parents wishes and go against her oath as a nurse? I really admired her strength and courage throughout the book.
“Comments like this feel like paper cuts…White people don’t mean half the offensive things that come out of their mouths, and so I try not to let myself get rubbed the wrong way.”
Kennedy goes through the most growth in this book, thanks to Ruth of course. Often I would read a scene from Kennedy’s point of view and no red flags would go up, but once we see the same situation through Ruth’s eyes, I would see how problematic it was. Kennedy claims that she does not see people in relation to their race, or “color-blindness” as she liked to say, but Ruth really shows her that this is dismissing her experiences as a woman of color. This is why the multiple perspectives were so important for this book, Picoult uses Kennedy to show white people how ignorant we can be to the privileges we enjoy.
“I don’t think about being white. I told you the first time we sat down – I don’t see color.”
“Not all of us have that privilege.”
Turk’s perspective was hard to endure, but necessary as well. Picoult really showed how white supremacy groups are almost cult like. These people recruit impressionable people who need something to believe in and fill them with hate. I am not defending him or his actions, but I can understand the circumstances in his life that molded him into what he became.
“There is a hierarchy to hate, and it’s different for everyone. Personally, I hate spics more than I hate Asians, I hate Jews more than that, and at the very top of the chart, I despise blacks. But even more than any of these groups, the people you hate the most are antiracist White folks. Because they are turncoats.”
Small Great things really opened up my eyes to the fact that racism is still embedded into our society… When flipping through a magazine, how did I never notice that the ads (for makeup, shampoo, etc) were all products geared towards white people? Why didn’t it ever bother me that some of my favorite TV shows growing up had a predominantly white cast? The simple answer is that I didn’t have to. Being born white in the United States is like hitting the race jackpot. I can go to a bookstore and find thousands of books that I can see myself in. I can flip on the TV and go through channel after channel and see the same. I can walk into a drug store and see the shelves lined with products that are geared towards me. Basically, I am living in a country tailored to white people.
“How incredibly easy it is to hide behind white skin…”
I strongly encourage you to read the author’s note at the end of this book. Picoult shares that she was very intimidated by writing this book (putting it off for 20 years), but that she felt compelled to write this story. It is clear that she did a tremendous about of research in order to compile this novel. I am so glad that she wrote this book, not only because I got so much out of it, but because she has such a loyal band of followers that will read this book. Many of her followers may not typically pick up books that tackle race issues and white privilege, so these issues will get the exposure they deserve.
Picoult really made me think about some of my own words and actions (or lack of) and how I didn’t even realize I have been passively racist in my life. By not actively participating to put a stop to racism, I am passively racist. I am a bystander, and this needs to change.
Still fuzzy on what passive racism is? I’m going to share a personal story with you all. This is a perfect example of passive racism…
A few months ago, I was standing at the bus stop waiting for my son to get picked up for school. There was another mother with her daughter, and a grandmother with her grandchildren. We were chatting about Trick-or-Treating, as Halloween had been the night before, and how thankful we were that the weather had been so nice. This got us talking about Halloweens in the past that had been terrible because of bad weather. One year in particular, Beggar’s Night had to be rescheduled due to bad weather. It was moved to a weekend night that year, and we were talking about how many trick-or-treaters it had brought to our neighborhood that year when we typically do not have many at all. At this point, the grandmother said something along the lines of “It brought a lot of people here that you don’t want here…darks, if you know what I mean.” I was shocked at this statement. I couldn’t believe this woman would say something so horrible. I was absolutely speechless. Thankfully the kids were all running around and didn’t hear this blatantly racist comment. I knew I should say something, but what? Did I really want to start a confrontation with a woman that I see 5 mornings a week? Instead I adverted my eyes and ignored the comment. This decision to not act haunted me the rest of the day as I played the scenario over and over in my mind. I thought about it for the days and weeks the followed. Why did I feel so guilty? It isn’t like I made the comment… “I’m not racist, that woman is!” is how I justified my inaction. After reading Small Great Things, it made me realize that by not speaking up, I was just as guilty as the woman who made the racist comment.
Why am I sharing this story? While it is true that I may receive some backlash from this personal story, I feel it is something that needs to be shared. How else are things going to change if we don’t start talking about these problems? How are people like me, who enjoy privileges simply because I was born white, going to learn if we don’t have these uncomfortable conversations?
“It is a good question, one that I feel all the way to my own core. Is it better not knowing the ugly truth, and pretending it doesn’t exist? Or is it better to confront it, even though that knowledge may be a weight you carry around forever?”
This book was not without a few small issues. Personally, I did not care for how things wrapped up so neatly in the end, particularly for Turk. I just don’t think it was believable. Sure, I would like to think this is how things would have panned out, but I just don’t think it was realistic. Furthermore, I felt like some of the side plots, particularly those that involved Edison, were a tad distracting to the main storyline. I feel the book could have been simplified, thus making this book less busy.
Bottom line, this is an important book. I learned so much from it, and it really opened up my eyes to things I have said and done (or not done) that are problematic. Things that I need to change and improve on. Most importantly I think this book will get people talking and having conversations that need to be had.