I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Published by Ballantine Books on October 11th 2016
Format: Electronic ARC
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Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. —BENJAMIN FRANKLIN
Ruth, a black nurse, is forbidden from caring for a white supremacist’s newborn. An unfortunate set of circumstances leads to Ruth being left alone with the baby for a short period of time. The baby goes into cardiac distress under her watch and she hesitates. The infant’s file strictly states that African American personnel aren’t allowed to care for the baby. Should she follow orders or intervene? When the baby dies, Ruth is held responsible and a difficult legal battle ensues.
Babies are such blank slates. They don’t come into this world with the assumptions their parents have made, or the promises their church will give, or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don’t like. They don’t come into this world with anything, really, except a need for comfort. And they will take it from anyone, without judging the giver.
I wonder how long it takes before the polish given by nature gets worn off by nurture.
There are three alternating perspectives in this book:
• Ruth has done everything “right” in her life, yet she is suddenly about to lose everything. People who she thought were her friends are quick to turn their back on her or dismiss her experiences. The situation forces her to view all the events of her life in a different light. “I was never a member of any of those communities. I was tolerated, but not welcomed. I was, and will always be, different from them.” She feels frustrated and distrustful, as her whole world is turned upside down.
• Turk, a white supremacist, is overwhelmed with grief over the loss of his baby. He finds a perfect scapegoat in Ruth. I have to give the author credit for this character. I hated being in his chapters so much that I had to keep checking to see how many minutes I had left! Not only do Turk and his wife have abhorrent thoughts, but they also commit violent acts. Some of the most interesting parts of Turk’s chapters were the details about the movement’s attempt to blend in with the general population, their recruitment methods, and the exploration of what causes a person to become so full of hate. Turk has some humanizing moments: the grief over the loss of his child, elements of his and his wife’s love story, and a reminiscence about a stint in jail. It shows he has the capability for love and compassion, so maybe he’s not a complete lost cause.
• Kennedy is the white public defender that takes on Ruth’s case. Kennedy sees herself as “color-blind,” but Ruth’s case is a big learning experience for her. She becomes more aware of her own blind spots and how much she has taken for granted. Her character growth is the central focal point. Her voice is the most natural of the three.
Ruth’s confusion was understandable in this no-win situation. I found this news article about patients refusing care from nurses and it’s just as confusing in real life! Ruth’s supervisor Marie made a major judgment call without establishing any protocol. Turk seems more horrified by Ruth performing CPR on his son than he is at her hesitation. His fixation on CPR especially annoyed me, especially because I knew how it was going to play out in court. The villainous risk management lawyer Carla Luongo wasted no time making Ruth the scapegoat with absolutely zero subtlety. She only appears twice in the beginning, but she annoyed me enough that I still remember her!
It is remarkable how events and truths can be reshaped, like wax that’s sat too long in the sun. There is no such thing as a fact. There is only how you saw the fact, in a given moment. How you reported the fact. How your brain processed that fact. There is no extrication of the storyteller from the story.
If you are wary of Jodi Picoult, I’ll warn you that it is still very Picoult-ish. However, I liked it so much more than My Sister’s Keeper. I decided to read it because of the fantastic reviews and I can’t resist the medical/courtroom combo. I love a dramatic legal battle and Picoult certainly delivers! The jury selection and courtroom scenes were my favorite parts. It was interesting how the issue of race had to be tiptoed around so that the people who held so much power over Ruth’s fate wouldn’t get uncomfortable and hold it against her. I also liked how the “days of the week” argument tied in.
“Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed.” I look at her. “The first one sounds fair. The second one is fair. It’s equal to give a printed test to two kids. But if one’s blind and one’s sighted, that’s not true. You ought to give one a Braille test and one a printed test, which both cover the same material.”
There’s an occasional made-for-TV/after-school-special quality that prevents me from being overly enchanted. Picoult has a message to get across and it’s not always subtle. Ruth’s sections feel stuffed with everything Picoult wanted to make me aware of and Ruth’s voice didn’t always sound natural to me. I was always jolted out of the story by the portrayals of the supporting characters, such as her politically aware sister and her son Edison (who does a complete 180). But for every scene I thought was heavy-handed (Ruth and Edison’s dinner with Kennedy’s family), there would be an authentic scene (Edison being dissuaded from asking a girl to the dance). I didn’t always buy Turk’s voice either. He was either rough-around-the-edges or thoughtful and poetic at any given moment. Most of all, the ending irritated me! She set it up well and I knew it was coming, but it was so over-the-top. Even with all that, this book still made me feel strongly. I felt so angry for what was happening to Ruth!
It is amazing how you can look in a mirror your whole life and think you are seeing yourself clearly. And then one day, you peel off a filmy gray layer of hypocrisy, and you realize you’ve never truly seen yourself at all.
In the author’s note, which is also available at her website, Picoult explains why she wrote this book and reveals details about her extensive research. I appreciate that I can recommend as a “gateway” book to the topic of racial bias and white privilege to people who might usually get defensive at the mere mention of race. (Not awesome, but it’s a thing.) Small Great Things challenges readers to confront their own bias and privileges. It discusses the extra institutional hurdles to some Americans have to overcome. It’s hard to fix something that a majority can’t admit exists, but this book shines a light on how the typical white experience is not universal. It also highlights the difference between active and passive racism. Turk is obviously a racist, but racism and racial bias aren’t always so visible. It could be as simple as silence or refusing to believe racism exists; after all, it leads to the same result as active racism. I know that I’ve been guilty of being silent and this book made me reflect on how damaging that behavior can be.
What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?
Small Great Things is a thought-provoking book that is especially effective as an introduction to issues of racial bias and white privilege. I appreciate Picoult using her influence to educate people on something they may not be aware of and her book will provoke interesting discussion. I highly recommend reading Roxane Gay’s awesome analysis of this book.
If you would like to read more about the topics addressed in this book, you might be interested in Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado (audiobook is available on Hoopla), You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson, and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (audiobook is available on Hoopla, 1hr 37min).