A review of Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Ruth is passionate about her job as a labour and delivery nurse in a hospital in Connecticut, where she’s worked for 20 years, helping mothers and their babies. But when a white supremacist couple demand that Ruth – who is African American – not be allowed to touch their baby and the hospital goes along with the request, Ruth is angry and horrified.
But things get worse the next day, when Ruth is left alone with the child and he goes into distress. Unsure whether to follow orders or help the baby, Ruth hesitates and when he dies, she is held responsible.
As her friends and colleagues fall away, eager to blame her for what happened, Ruth is forced to rely on the help of defence lawyer Kennedy McQuarrie, who is adamant that race has no place in the courtroom.
About 10 years ago, I was a huge fan of Jodi Picoult and had read most of her books. But as much as I enjoyed them, after you’ve read a few they become a bit formulaic. Each story deals with a different moral or ethical issue, which affects a family or two, resulting in a court case that pushes everyone to their limits, before the situation is resolved.
So since her novel Nineteen Minutes, which was published in 2007, I haven’t read any of Picoult’s stuff.
But I was intrigued by the description of Small Great Things, especially since I’d read a couple of really good reviews. And with the current political climate and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it feels like a very timely story.
Picoult writes in her acknowledgements that she recognises the book may prove controversial. As a well-off white woman, in many ways this isn’t her story to tell. But she has written something that will reach a huge audience and is thought-provoking in the way it confronts issues of racism in American society.
The question of who has the right to tell a story is one I find particularly interesting, as it’s a very sensitive, nuanced argument. While it’s important for writers or artists not to appropriate things that don’t belong to them, if we only ever told stories based on our own experiences the work that got published would be hugely limited.
But Picoult’s writing style actually works very well for this story, as she writes from the perspective of three characters: the nurse who loses her job, the white supremacist father who demands she is removed from his son’s care, and the lawyer who defends her during the trial.
By telling much of the story from the perspective of two white people, Picoult manages to explore the issue of racism by getting inside the heads of her characters. She has obviously also done a lot of research into the nature of white supremacy, which she uses to build up a more rounded character for Turk, giving him a background that shows his journey from troubled child to violent racist and beyond.
He contrasts with the character of Kennedy: where one is openly racist, the other believes herself to be epitome of open-minded, liberal values, until she is forced to confront prejudices she didn’t even realise she had.
In that way, this becomes a story about self-realisation and transformation, not only for the white characters, but also for Ruth, who is forced to look back on her upbringing and the differences between her life and that of her sister. Where Ruth went to a good school – thanks to her mother’s wealthy employers – has a professional job and lives in a middle-class, predominantly white neighbourhood, her sister went to an inner city school and lives on the wrong side of the tracks, having embraced her racial heritage where Ruth has always tried to escape it.
This is a genuinely moving novel that forces the reader to think twice about their own attitude to race. It shows that, while society has come a long way, it is still far from equal, and just because you might not see prejudice or inequality every day, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
A powerful, uncomfortable read that has encouraged me to check out some of the author’s other work.
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