Small Great Things by Jodi PicoultPublisher: Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House (October 11, 2016)
Description from the publisher:
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's novels pretty much defined my reading life during my early 20s. I have read at least a dozen of her books (three of which I've reviewed here). Not all of them have been home runs, but they have all given me something to ponder. She is truly a master storyteller, and the queen of analyzing moral dilemmas.
Small Great Things is up there with the best of them, although I had to put it down occasionally, it was so gut wrenching. Reading the parts told from the white supremacist father's point of view was so difficult, and downright nauseating at times. But these are the kind of things to which we must bear witness. I can't imagine what it must have been like for Picoult to write those passages, given that her viewpoint is crystal clear and bordering on political statement. Nonetheless, it's a statement that needs to be made and is made well. I highlighted so many passages - the ones I've included here were just a fraction of them.
"How am I supposed to encourage my son to be better than most people expet him to be? How can I say, with a straight face, you can be anything you want in this world - when I struggled and studied and excelled and still wound up on trial for something I did not do?"
There is so much to unpack in this novel on race, truth and our perception of both.
"Love has nothing to do with what you're looking at, and everything to do with who's looking."
I thought that it got a little long winded in parts (I'm not the biggest fan of courtroom drama) and that she infused every possible nook and cranny of the character's lives with racial tension, even including a conflict between Kennedy and her mother over whether her daughter should dress up as the black Disney princess Tiana, which felt heavy handed at times - but, again, it is the truth of the world we live in.
"How many exceptions do there have to be before you start to realize that maybe the truths you've been told aren't actually true?"
It was difficult for me to read and hope for an acquittal for Ruth. Because on one hand I wanted a happy ending - on the other, I couldn't help but think about the many people in her situation that would not receive justice and a happy ending. However, true to form, Picoult broke out some fantastic plot twists near the end and turned the tables on how I thought it would play out. It was a truly satisfying ending.
I don't think I've read a book on social justice written by a white person. The entire time I was reading it, I couldn't help but wonder what my black friends might think or say about Ruth's point of view. Then her author's note at the end made so much sense, pointing out the fact that:
"if I'd written only what I knew, my career would have been short and boring...For years I had done my homework and my research, using extensive personal interviews to channel voices of people I was not: men, teenagers, suicidal people, abused wives, rape victims....When it comes to social justice, the role of the white ally is not to be a savior or a fixer. Instead, the role of the ally is to find other white people and talk to make them see that many of the benefits they've enjoyed in life are direct results of the fact that someone else did not have the same benefits."
I applaud her and her very worthwhile small great thing.
"We met an Aboriginal man, who showed us the Emu in the Sky, the constellation near the Southern Cross that is not a dot-to-dot puzzle, like our constellations, but the spaces in between the dots - nebulas swirling against the Milky Way to form the long neck and dangling legs of the great bird. I couldn't find it, at first. And then, once I did, it was all I could see."