Fictional character, Ruth Jefferson, an African-American Yale graduate with over twenty years of experience as a nurse, mother of 17-year old son, Edison, and widow to a military hero is prohibited by the hospital from continuing care of a newborn at the request of the baby’s white supremacist parents, Turk and Brit Bauer. The next day, the hospital is extremely short-handed and Ruth is left alone with the infant in the nursery where he goes into cardiac distress. The medical team does all they can to save the baby but yet it is only Ruth who finds herself charged with murder with the fate of her life, career, and reputation in the hands of her White public defense attorney, Kennedy McQuarrie.
I avoid reading social or political awareness books, reading the feel-good happy endings, the suspense filled mysteries, the books turned to movies, or the latest Bestseller series that everyone can’t stop talking about on social media instead. When I read the synopsis for Small Great Things I knew I had to read it and I had a strong feeling it would awaken a part of me that I usually don’t acknowledge.
I can’t pinpoint an instance in my 27 years of life when I felt directly subject to racism by an individual person, but as I was reading I felt connected to the experiences and feelings being expressed by Ruth in this novel. For instance, as a young child, I remember having white friends at school but not in the neighborhoods where my family was an obvious minority. Instead, the friends that I played with or who came to my home were my cousins who were all from D.C. and Northern Virginia as well. There were times I felt out-of-place around my family from D.C. but I also didn’t always feel comfortable at school among my white friends either. It wasn’t until I reached middle school and became really involved with basketball that my black and white social circles connected. I guess I can never be sure whether this happened due to my intellect, personality and character, or rather because of the promising talent I displayed on the basketball court. Growing up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, always being an honor student in majority white schools, being an elite athlete, graduating from the prestigious Duke University– I absolutely could relate to Ruth’s feelings about “trying to fit in.” But for me, trying to fit in didn’t mean “trying to be white” or “forgetting where I came from.” Trying to fit in meant working so hard to be successful so that I might be respected as equal despite representing some of the most marginalized people in America– black women.
I liked the fact that this novel is written in the voices of a black person, a white supremacist and an “ordinary” white person who doesn’t consider herself racist but she becomes aware of her privilege, bias and unintentional racism when put in a position where she can no longer ignore it. I appreciate the research Picoult conducted and her efforts to present an accurate depiction of being black (or white) in America today in an attempt to address the various people involved in the foundational racism of this country.
What I didn’t like about the novel is that at times some scenarios, descriptions of events and/or characters felt too forced in order to make a point. While the information isn’t exaggerated to the point of inaccuracy, it still felt like an overcompensation for the fact that the author isn’t Black and that she was writing the book with the intent to enlighten her White readers. I also thought the ending consisted of a series of plot twists that felt rushed and like Picoult was trying too hard to shock or re-engage the reader after a tense trial, it was almost distracting. I can’t quite describe it but it went from realistic and informative to “entertaining” rather abruptly.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Small Great Things and in light of the recent election I recommend reading this novel. Racism is an uncomfortable topic and I find it can be even more uncomfortable when genuinely addressed in the classroom, workplace or among a diverse group of peers. But it’s time we get comfortable being uncomfortable. We have to look within ourselves. We can’t sit back silently and watch hate win anymore. We must enlighten ourselves on all matters of inequality, discrimination and injustice as they pertain to issues of race, gender and sex not only when it affects our individual communities but when it threatens the progressive unity of our nation.
We have no idea what’s in store for our country or for the world in these next four years, but as Picoult put it “there is a fire raging, and we have two choices: we can turn our backs, or we can try to fight it.”
Jodi Picoult on writing Small Great Things:
“I was writing to my own community—white people—who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s a racist… but who can’t recognize racism in themselves… I was exploring my past, my upbringing, my biases, and I was discovering that I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined. Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than just discrimination based on skin color. It’s also about who has institutional power. Just as racism creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them…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.”