Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (22nd Nov 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.
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.
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Jodi Picoult is one of my favourite authors, with her book Keeping Faith, (review here), 19 Minutes, and Second Glance (review here) being amongst my favourite books ever. She is definitely not one to shy away from hot topics, controversial issues and majority of the time, I feel like she handles them spectacularly, both in telling a story that is interesting, as well as shedding light on important things within the issue. This book, does exactly that, this time it’s a story about racism, very apt in todays racial climate and amidst the war cry of #BlackLivesMatter.
The story follows three different narratives - of Ruth Jefferson, the black nurse and our main protagonist, as well as Turk Bauer - the white supremacist, and Kennedy - the white public defence lawyer who takes on Ruth’s case. Turk Bauer demands that no black nurse should touch his newborn child, he says this as he pulls up his sleeves to reveal a confederate flat tattoo on his arm. The hospital has no choice but to obey and the post it note is placed in Ruth’s file, issuing the order that she was no longer allowed to touch this child. When an emergency arrises and Ruth hesitates, the wheels have been put in motion and she finds herself on the end of a lawsuit, where the Bauer’s are suing her for the death of their child.
This book was hard to read for me, especially the chapters we see from Turk’s point of view. His chapters show us glimpses into his past, how he had grown up, how his views were shaped, and I guess the main purpose of this to show that his hatred and racism wasn’t just born of ignorance, but there were reasons as to why he held and lived by these views. But to me personally, I still felt like there was no excuse whatsoever, regardless of what happened in his life as a kid and to those around him - his racism was not warranted. I felt absolutely no sympathy for Turk’s character, as horrible and cold as that sounds, as unfair as it was for his child to die, for which my heart did hurt - but this was all because of Turk and his wife’s actions. It was hard to read about the joy these characters experienced when they purposefully went out to beat up gay couples, who were just minding their own business, simply because of who they were. The hatred they spewed against those of colour, those different than them - was such a hard pill to swallow because that is what is happening in 2017, in this day and age. And it’s terrifying to read chapters from a point of view that is marred with so much hatred and anger. From Turk, we see racism in its raw form.
The chapters we see from Kenney’s point of view were interesting - I say this because Kennedy believes herself not to be a racist, as she herself claims, “she doesn’t see colour” only people - and the author has painted her in this way, with these ideals, to display the white privilege she is accustomed to. It’s easy for her not to see colour, because as someone who is white, she skates through life not having to worry about how people will react and respond to her based simply on the colour of her skin. While people of colour, people like Ruth, will always have that question in their mind, wether or not it is warranted, if someone acted in a way they did, responded to her in the way they did, because of the colour of her skin. Taking a wonderful quote from Hidden Figures, where Janelle Monae’s character is asked
“if you were a white maid, would you wish to be an engineer?” her reply -
“I wouldn’t have to - I’d already be one.”
The final perspective we get is, Ruth Jefferson. Reading her chapters was something of an eye opener for me personally. I myself am a Muslim, hijab wearing woman of colour. Sure I’ve experienced racism, to the extent that I find this to be a casual statement, because if not for the hijab on my head, then I’ve experienced it for the colour of my brown skin. But I’m not angry. I’m not paranoid. I am like Ruth Jefferson at the beginning, where she dismissed all these things while her sister kept telling her these things happen to her because she is black. I skated through life believing in the strength of my intelligence and the kindness of my soul - but I like Ruth, should have been angry. We see the progression in Ruth’s character, as she goes from being that nimble individual to wanting her voice to be heard, for her anger and hurt to be acknowledged. I couldn’t understand her at first, when things were going well for her and she was going to avoid prison time - yet she was willing to throw it all away just so she can take the stand and say her piece. I was annoyed with her, thinking she’s ruining everything she wanted in the first place! But.. in the end, I got it. I got her. Being acquitted, being able to go back to her job, if that was still an option, meant nothing to her, meant nothing to her struggle, her lifetime of struggle, if she couldn’t use this moment, this trial, as a way to express exactly what it meant to be in this position BECAUSE of the colour of her skin. This is something that we see Kennedy experience herself too - who like me, wanted nothing more than to stop Ruth from going to jail, but she too comes to understand for it’s about being heard, not being dismissed, about how you feel and what you went through.
Like others have said in their review, it would have been SO easy for Jodi Picoult to use this book and the story, to be a spokesperson on behalf of all black Americans, but the reason I always love Picoult’s book is, that she didn’t do that. It’s about each individual’s struggle, each individual’s story and what it means to them in the grand scheme of things. It challenges and emphasises what white privilege means. Like I said earlier, this book was hard to read and uncomfortable too, mainly because of Turk’s chapters - and I can again, see from people’s review, that it was the same case for them. For a lot of the white readers, it opens their eyes to the privilege they may not have realised they had in so many instances of their life - never had to question it, simply because they are not a person of colour.
The author brings all this together with, as always, her beautiful writing, her stop-you-in-your-tracks-and-makes-you-think sentences and plot, which guarantees that you won’t be able to put it down. It’s challenging, a heartbreaking and harrowing read of the reality of a black person vs the reality of a white person, with everything always unsaid hung between them. So many questions arise, about racism, morality, prejudice, that finicky little thing about freedom of choice to a racist person. So many things. Small, great things. A title so apt for this book and a cover so beautiful with the black and white design. The only gripe I did have with this, was like many others, the ending. The truth about Turk’s wife, Brittany, and her mother; Turk’s change, it was all too quick for me, all too convenient, and in that sense, all too unrealistic. I cannot fathom the Turk we see at the beginning of the book, to the one we see at the end. Sure, it’s fiction, but even then, with the level and intensity of hate that Turk carries, it just feel too quick to reach the end that he did. That aside, this was a spellbinding book, an important one that carries home a message that needs to be heard and realities that need to be confronted. As always, another great one from Jodi Picoult. *slow clap*.