Published by Random House, Ballantine on 10/11/16
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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.
Listen, Jodi Picoult doesn’t f*** around. When she writes a novel, I believe she writes with the intention of worming inside you like some kind of super virus that’s capable of changing your makeup. I actually boycotted her work some years ago because I’d had enough, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was so done with reading her books and then having to deal with the intense, emotional fallout for weeks afterwards. Then, I’d have to deal with the ripples for months and sometimes years (see Nineteen Minutes) following. I’m not here for it. Or, I wasn’t here for it. I went on to mainly read lighter stuff, most that were guaranteed to make me feel good, but lately I’ve become dissatisfied with only light fare, so I decided to give Picoult another chance. I’m not sure that was a good decision.
Small Great Things is a powerful novel. Picoult writes about a topic so volatile and potentially fracturing that sometimes I don’t like to talk about it, wary it’ll cause divide. But, as Picoult states in her notes, avoiding it just makes it worse. Isn’t that the case with all thorny issues, really? Picoult takes on the topic of racism and she creates something meaningful.
Small Great Things follows Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk. Ruth is a black labor and delivery nurse who ends up on trial for murder. Kennedy is a white public defender who seeks out Ruth’s case. Turk is a white supremacist who vows to get revenge for his son’s death. I’ve described the surface of each of these characters. Jodi Picoult exposes their layers of truth, the good and the ugly. Small Great Things features all three points of view, and there were many times I wished it didn’t.
This was not an easy read. In fact, this was one of the most difficult books I’ve had to read because it touched on so many pieces of me, some parts I didn’t expect. It also pissed me off. No, it pissed me the f*** off. This was not a read I tore through, because I had to take breaks to regain my composure, and also I just needed to think. Sometimes I wished I could’ve run through it and avoided the emotional landmines on the page, but Picoult wouldn’t let me.
This book is intense and completely riveting. If you’re familiar with Picoult’s work, then you know that some feature legal suspense that usually drives the pace, and Small Great Things is rife with that tension. Although, the courtroom drama isn’t the majority of the plot, so new readers, don’t shy away if you’re expecting tons of legalese. That’s not what this is about.
This book is about the characters. I identified deeply with these characters. All of them. I identified with Turk, as vile as that may seem. I identified with Ruth, her helplessness and sorrow something palpable that I felt. And, surprisingly, I identified with Kennedy most in her idealism and sometimes downright ignorance. What does that say about me, a black Jamaican American? I don’t know, but Jodi Picoult made me ask the question.
Small Great Things makes you ask questions. Questions that don’t have easy answers, but questions that desperately need to be expressed. It makes you open your eyes. It makes you open your heart. It makes you open your mind. I urge you to read this novel, because it is rich with feeling and so profoundly moving. This book is a reflection of society and ourselves, an image that is painful to endure. But, I promise, if you bear it and learn from it, then you’ll be better for it. So, read this book, and make your friends read it too.