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.
This is a book that definitely stayed with me long after I finished reading it. In Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult poses the questions of why people end up with the beliefs they do, and whether anyone is really born ‘bad’, or whether it’s decisions they make in life – coupled with unfortunate things that happen to them and their education, family values etc – which make people believe, think and act the way they do?
First off, this story definitely doesn’t just paint people as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – it’s not that black and white, and really unearths reasons for people having the opinions they do. This is NO WAY excuses some of their behaviour – I found it incredibly hard to read about the opinions and values of Turk and his wife (and family and friends), who are White Supremacists and object to a black midwife – Ruth, the main character in this novel – looking after their child. I really hated those characters with a passion.
And here comes the ‘but’, which I can’t really believe I’m saying, BUT Picoult manages to make us feel some empathy with these parents, losing their baby so suddenly and so young. I didn’t feel a huge amount, granted, but some sadness for them was there, if you can filter their beliefs out in their mind, even for a limited time. I did feel for what they must be going through, and I can’t even begin to imagine how horrendous a situation that must be for them. So, even though I completely disagree with their opinions, you do feel very sorry for them when you consider that they’ve actually lost a child.
Whatever you feel about the characters, you don’t feel like you’re being preached at or to, and instead gain an understanding of what all their lives were, and are, like.
The story hops between narrators – Ruth, Ruth’s Lawyer Kennedy, and Turk. The different stories aren’t always in chronological order, as sometimes when switching between them the story goes back in time to before we last left them, so we see parts of the story from a different perspective, which is really interesting. It took me a little while to get properly into the storyline, but once I did I was really absorbed.
The characters, as always with Jodi Picoult’s novels, are convincing and so well-rounded- even the characters I despised (Turk and Brit particularly – I hated to think there are people like that in the world, but unfortunately there undoubtedly are). I really liked Ruth, though felt frustrated with her sometimes as she could be SO stubborn, and some of the things she did I really didn’t get or agree with, personally – a few points in the book felt a little out of character for the person we’d got to know in this novel, but who can say, hand on heart, that they know how they’d react in the same position? She isn’t perfect, but who really is? Her sister got on my nerves at times (well, a lot of the time) but she evidently meant well, and I really felt for Ruth’s son Edison, despite playing up at times – he seemed so lovely and I really warmed to him.
Racism is, undoubtedly, a key theme in this book, and not just centred around Turk and Brit, but with many characters, many of whom probably wouldn’t consider themselves as racist people. It also includes ideas about family and power in American society. I can’t say it’s a great book for escapism, if that’s what you’re after, because it is stark and uncomfortable at times, but it felt powerful to read and thought-provoking. I think Jodi Picoult has done a really good job in Small Great Things to not come across as too self-righteous or preachy – a mark of a great writer.
So there ends my rambling review for this book! It’s a tricky one: I can’t say I enjoyed reading every page because at times I found it shocking and difficult, but I felt that this is a book well worth reading, to make you think about those in different situations to you, and the story pulled me in more and more as I read on. This is likely to provoke strong feelings and conversations around the subjects included, which is exactly what Jodi Picoult has said she aimed for.
Small Great Things is released in the UK on 22 November 2016.
Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for a copy of this novel, on which I chose to write an unbiased and honest review.