Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

  • Title: Small Great Things
  • Author: Jodi Picoult28587957
  • # of Pages: 512

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

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.

I first stumbled upon Jodi Picoult in the library, somewhere around 2010. I passed by a book and on a whim decided to check it out. I fell in love. The stories, the writing, the unbelievable dilemmas.  “Plain Truth” was just the start.

At first I devoured them – My Sister’s Keeper, The Pact, The Tenth Circle. The stories were crazy and daring and I was a young teen reading books that probably weren’t exactly appropriate for her age. Eventually, though, the shtick got old. The unexpected twists stopped being unexpected. It all became repetitive. I stopped buying more and I never read the ones I’d already gotten.

In 2014 I decided to give “Sing You Home” a go. Enough time had passed and the critical approach gave way to old love. It took me two days to finish the four hundred and sixty six page book. I decided I didn’t have to give it all up – Picoult in small doses was just perfect.

Three years later it seemed like the perfect time for my next (and seventh) dose. I picked up “Small Great Things”. The blurb caught my eye. I have an unexplained interest in the whole concept of white supremacy – it’s something I just can’t grasp. No amount of documentaries, interviews and videos will help me understand. It absolutely terrifies me, and yet I still find myself up at night watching forty five minute videos on YouTube about the Aryan Brotherhood. Maybe it’s because I’m a Jew growing up in Israel and Nazi Germany is a big part of education, culture and society here. Maybe it’s because I’m still amazed at how prevalent these ideas are in today’s society. Maybe I expected more from us by now.

Like all of Picoult’s books, the story is told from a few points of view. In this case we have Ruth, the African American nurse, Turk, the white supremacist father and Kennedy, the public defendant. The points of view sometimes overlap – one event is told twice, through different people. Flashbacks are woven into the current thread. Sometimes there’s an entire section of just plain thoughts, a window into our story-teller’s mind.

Jodi Picoult’s writing style makes her books a great joy to read. The writing is simple yet full, funny, with well rounded characters and beautiful descriptions. She usually manages to make every character likable – even the ones that shouldn’t be.

“Small Great Things” is a good book. Not bad, not great. It’s easy to get into and pretty suspenseful. As a writer, and one who mostly sticks to short stories, I really enjoyed the flashback scenes. I was fascinated by Turk, the white supremacist. Picoult did research before writing the book and channeled its results through Turk, who exposes us to a world we rarely hear about – White Power rallies and events, gangs and their leaders. It’s hard to believe any of it is real. Kennedy’s scenes with her family were mostly entertaining. On Ruth’s end, some of the flashbacks from her job as a labor and delivery nurse almost made me cry.

Also, I think the book took a very good approach towards racism, especially considering the writer was white, which can sometimes lead to problematic situations. Picoult chooses to bring up an issue that’s not widely discussed – white privilege. It’s a touchy subject, and one people tend to avoid because it makes them uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable. Because we’re not racist, right? Not really. In fact, the modern concept of “colorblindness” is actually quite damaging. The truth is that the ones who can ignore differences are those who don’t suffer as a result of them, and that’s one of Picoult’s main points. Racism is so deeply integrated into our culture – the way we speak, the way we think and even the way we “instinctively” react. This is not just a matter of accepting others. Another part of is acknowledging our own prejudice, and also, accepting some of the blame for the way things are today. It isn’t easy. Not for Kennedy, the public defender, and not for us, the readers. As James Baldwin said, and then was quoted in this book, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Without giving it away, I think the main flaw in this book was its ending. As I said, Picoult likes going for the unexpected. And yet, even then, she usually does it in a way that makes sense. This time that wasn’t the case. The ending is rushed and feels… uncomfortable. As I neared the ending I played a game with myself, trying to guess how crazy it would get this time. The truth caught me off guard, and not in a good way.

One character who never got his own chapters is Edison, Ruth’s seventeen year old son. He is her “everything” – the reason she works so hard, the reason she fights back, the meaning of life in her eyes. He wasn’t a main character and yet his relationship with Ruth was one of the most important ones in the story. A good book has to get its readers to care. Care what happens to the characters, care what happens to their lives. The connection between Ruth and her son is what got me to care. It was very well written, loving, completely open and honest. Most importantly, it felt real, and that’s what eventually allowed Ruth’s fear to slip into my heart. The idea of going to prison forever. The idea of leaving her son behind. In the end, I think that’s what made this book work. My heart froze when I imagined losing the trial. Not Ruth losing; us losing.

I think I can forgo the summary, considering how long this turned out. Just a thought before I send you off: Picoult’s books are sort of like fireworks – the first few times they leave you standing there, in awe. Eventually it gets old and repetitive and the big bang is never surprising. And yet, even if it takes a while, in the end you find yourself enjoying the show.


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