Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Published: October 2016
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.
Jodi Picoult is one of my all-time favorite authors, but I was nervous to pick this one up. It was clearly going to be heavier than most of her novels, tackling race, prejudice, discrimination, and justice, all of which can make so many of us uncomfortable. I also knew I didn’t want to be in the head of a white supremacist, first and foremost.
So this isn’t a review so much as a commentary on what I got from this book. I have to acknowledge that I may say something incorrectly in this post, and I’m sorry in advance if I’ve inadvertently offended readers.
On a friend’s post about the diverse new Congress on FB, someone had left a comment saying, “My personal opinion….I think we should look at all the members of Congress as equal…. regardless of race, gender, creed, or disability. They should all work together to make all our lives better! I worked in several schools where this was the work environment, and I was so appreciative! Love one another.” Their heart was in the right place, and they mean well, but this sort of statement is what Picoult tackles in the novel: by not acknowledging someone’s difference, you are negating the strengths of that difference, the core of their identity, the success and hardship they faced because of that identity. You are, inexplicably, perpetuating discrimination. Turning a blind eye does not change the system.
I was angry and ashamed and felt such a weight of guilt the entire time I read the novel. I may call myself an ally, an advocate, someone who isn’t racist, someone who wants equality for all, who seeks social justice for all. But there are things I’ve said and done, intending to be a good person, that actually continue the perpetuation of racism (ex: “I don’t see color,” or like that FB comment above). These are things I need to work on, do better, listen more. Compounding with that were several moments of eye-rolling and shock at the lawyer’s naivete whenever she went shopping with Ruth, looking up jurors with Howard, or listening to what children say to one another. Is this really the world “basic white people” live in? Are they really that ignorant? I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and school district. So these cringe-worthy moments were horrendous, because to me it seems like common sense. But I had to actively remember Jodi Picoult’s audience: privileged white women who probably, genuinely, have no idea. This book is meant to make us uncomfortable. It’s supposed to raise these issues, and make us more aware of our own shortcomings.
Which then raises the question: who has the right to tell a story like Ruth’s, a black woman or a white woman? Well, a black woman, because she can accurately portray this life and mindset, absolutely! But you also need to think about audience and wide reach — in the case of Picoult, how can you properly show white people (her general audience being white women) what it’s like to be a black woman without making them feel too discomforted? Racism can be discussed between two or more races, but more importantly it needs to discussed, addressed, and pointed out within races to start. Whites need to see their ugly side from a fellow white, and learn and grow. Picoult’s author’s note said exactly this, and she made a great disclaimer too. Roxanne Gay’s review of this book is fantastic as well. I cannot stress enough the importance of reading her review alongside reading this book.
Like I said, this wasn’t so much a review of the book but a reflection of what I got from it. It shocked me (the basic white outlook of it), it made me uncomfortable, it made me feel guilty, it made me angry, it made me want to do more and be better.
Read this book. Learn. Ask the difficult questions. Seek out information to further your racial education. (Everyone. Even those of you who say you’re not racist.) It gives me hope that as the industry continues to strive for diversity, we will finally see Ruth’s story through a black writer, and that book would sell just as many copies as, if not more than, Picoult’s.