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.
I’ve been a fan of Jodi Picoult since I first read My Sister’s Keeper. Her stories are always deep and meaningful, with some kind of big twist at the end. She is one of the queens of Women’s Fiction, if we must classify her in that genre–really she belongs on a shelf alongside Michael Cunningham and Jonathan Tropper. But I digress…
I knew that her upcoming book would be one of the exemptions to my #OwnVoicesOctober TBR, since I committed to Small Great Things prior to the challenge. I did not realize, however, just how ironic that interruption would be.
I won’t deny that Small Great Things covers a lot of really important topics. But I feel a bit like a more talented me wrote this book–someone who recently opened her eyes to the race problems in America, and is trying to process them through her writing. I try as hard as I can to be an ally (and read and review accordingly), but as a white woman, I cannot speak for people of color–and I feel that is what this book is trying to do. Kennedy is the only character that really resonates without being, at the very least uncomfortable, and at the most, downright offensive. Turk is horrifying–we absolutely don’t need a white supremacist POV character to know there is racism in this story. And Ruth–she’s every African American stereotype in the 2016 media.
Picoult’s author’s note does give some insight to her thought process, her research, how she came to write this story. She didn’t take this lightly, and she knows she is going to get backlash from it. I understand why she wanted to write it. I sympathize with her frustration and desire to be an allied voice–I feel it too. But the contrast of reading Small Great Things and those written by #OwnVoices authors is a big one, and I think this would have come across differently if she had only written Kennedy’s POV, and left Ruth’s for those authors who live it every day. Turk’s POV…no one needs to read those racial slurs, even if they are appropriate for his character. It’s one thing to have this type of person as a side character, it’s another to get inside their head and say/think very triggering, offensive things.
Jodi Picoult, as always, is a masterful storyteller. I’m just not sure this is a story she should have told. If it made ME this uncomfortable to read it, I can’t even begin to imagine how it would make Ruth feel. Because this isn’t Kennedy’s story, and it isn’t Turk’s. They are part of it, sure. But the story is Ruth’s–and it is her voice that should be the loudest. That can’t happen, though, at least not effectively or appropriately, from the pen of a white author–no matter how masterful.
NetGalley and Ballentine Books provided an ARC for an unbiased review. Book to be released on Oct 11, 2016. This post contains affiliate links.
Small Great Things Reader’s Guide
1. Which of the three main characters (Ruth, Turk, or Kennedy) do you most relate to and why? Think about what you have in common with the other two characters as well – how can you relate to them?
2. The title of the book comes from the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that Ruth’s mother mentions on p. 173: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” What does this quote mean to you? What are some examples of small great things done by the characters in the novel?
3. Discuss Ruth’s relationship with her sister, Adisa. How does the relationship change over the course of the novel?
4. Kennedy seeks out a neighborhood in which she is the only white person to help her gain some perspective. Can you think of an example of a time when something about your identity made you an outsider? How were you affected by that experience?
5. All of the characters change over the course of the novel, but Turk’s transformation is perhaps the most extreme. What do you think contributed to that change?
6. Discuss the theme of parenthood in the novel. What does being a parent mean to Ruth, to Kennedy, and to Turk? What does it mean to you?
7. Why do you think Ruth lies to Kennedy about touching Davis when he first starts seizing? What would you have done in her position?
8. Why do you think Kennedy decides to take Ruth’s case? What makes it so important to her?
9. Discuss the difference between “equity” and “equality” as Kennedy explains it on p. 427. Do you think Ruth gets equity from the trial?
10. Was your perspective on racism or privilege changed by reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?
11. Did the ending of Small Great Things surprise you? If so, why? Did you envision a different ending?
12. Did the Author’s Note change your reading experience at all?
13. Have you changed anything in your daily life after reading Small Great Things?
14. Who would you recommend Small Great Things to? Why?