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.
One of the things I love about Jodi Picoult is that she doesn’t shy away from potentially controversial or difficult subjects and Small Great Things is no exception, looking at race – and race relations – in modern day America. Not only is it potentially controversial but, with what has happened recently with the rise of populism and anti-immigrant stances in America and Europe and movements like black lives matter, it seems very timely.
It is a book I was looking forward to reading and expected to be challenging, which it was, holding up a mirror that it wasn’t always comfortable to look in. To do this, tough, I did feel that Picoult moved away slightly from one of the other reasons I enjoy reading her books, her lack of judgement of her characters. Here, I felt they were definitely being judged. I think I would have preferred it if I was left to make some of the leaps in thinking myself; instead I did feel a little beaten over the head with them. I didn’t feel this straight away but, as the book went on, I felt that I was being led down on particular path.
The story that led me there, though, was a good one and kept me reading (especially because I am always fascinated by US court room drama). It is told in three parts and by three people, all of whom see things very differently almost right till the end. First, there is the time just after the birth of the little boy when Ruth is told she cannot care for him because she is African American through to and immediately after his death. Then the time leading up to the trial, with Ruth in shock over what is happening and her life quickly falls apart. Then there is the trial itself, where secrets are revealed and things are turned on their heads.
The storytellers are Ruth, Turk (the father) and Kennedy (the lawyer). Both Turk and Kennedy are white, though they have very different views on race – or do they? Picoult attempts to show that everyone is biased through the relationship with Kennedy and Ruth, it just isn’t always so obvious. There is a point in the book Picoult makes about equality and equity and how the latter is just as, if not more, important and she does a good job of showing this in the burgeoning relationship, which is a minefield of misunderstandings that are sometimes painful to read.
I did feel for all the characters as they wrestled with their thoughts and feelings, even Turk, who is not as straightforward as he first appeared. They were detailed and complex and willing to change, no matter how hard that was. It is the characters that saved this book for me and stopped me feeling too lectured at. That said, I am not sure how you approach this subject without some level of lecturing in order to get the message across and in less skilled hands than Picoult I think it would have been even harder still. I just think for me, it meant the difference between loving the book and liking it a lot.
Note: I received a copy of this book from netgalley in return for a fair and honest review. All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own.