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.
Jodi Picoult is an author I admire, since I was introduced to her works in 2009. I haven’t really looked back since my first Picoult novel, dabbling in an out of her work over the following years. When I saw Picoult was going to tackle the both difficult but imperative subject of race relations in the United States, I knew as a reader I would be in trusted hands.
Small Great Things, Picoult’s latest novel, is primarily focussed on the experience of African American nurse Ruth Jefferson. Ruth has worked in the same small hospital for over twenty years, since she graduated as a fully fledged nurse. She works tirelessly in the labour ward and has never had a complaint in the time she has worked for her employer. Ruth also has a fairly tough personal life, she is both a widow and single mum after losing her husband to the war in Afghanistan. Despite this, Ruth wants the very best for her family and she has high hopes for her son Edison. All this is shattered one day when Ruth is routinely sent to check on a newborn. The newborn is the child of a white supremacist couple. Their disgust at an African American woman examining their baby leads them to request she not have any further contact with the baby. However, when the baby experiences a medical emergency and Ruth is the only medical professional on the scene, this request wrecks havoc with all those involved. The tragic result sees Ruth charged with medical negligence by the distraught baby’s parents. Small Great Things then shifts to Ruth’s arrest and the resulting court case. The novel also looks at the effect this situation has on Ruth’s family, the prosecuting Bauer family and the public assistance lawyer taking care of Ruth’s case.
I can only imagine how tough a book this would be to write, but it is an essential book that gives the reader a good insight into racial tensions across the United States, in our current climate. The author’s note at the end of the book, explains why Picoult decided to write about this particular novel. It also goes into detail as to the extent of research she undertook to bring this book to fruition. Overall, I believe Picoult pulls off what she set out to achieve, which is a compassionate but balanced story based on race, prejudice and justice. It does feel like it has an agenda at times but I did appreciate how this book further raised my awareness of racism. Picoult takes care to balance out her perspectives, she gives the reader Ruth’s African American experience, as well as Turk Bauer, who is a white supremacist. Picoult contrasts these polar opposites to character Kennedy McQuarrie, who despite being both white and middle class, provides the impartial viewpoint. I did appreciate Kennedy, the lawyer’s journey and found myself connecting to this particular character. Turk’s story makes for some tough reading, the extreme views are hard to take at times but form a necessary part of the overall narrative. Ruth’s story further enlightened me to the sheer extent of racism experienced by African American people in so many facets of life, which has been ingrained in society for decades. Picoult’s style of presenting her novel is fairly predictable, with the device of alternating character voices with each changeover in chapter. Somehow this works consistently across all Picoult’s novels, drawing the reader into the story and characters. I certainly couldn’t put this novel down, which is symptomatic of Picoult’s prose and storytelling ability. When I reached the end, I felt like my emotions had been pulled in many directions, which does seem to be the case with many of Picoult’s books. Picoult’s novels tend to demand that you form an opinion on the social or moral dilemma being presented. Small Great Things is no exception to this rule. With a nicely tied up ending, I found this a most satisfying novel from an author I will continue to read with fervour.