Small Great Thingsby Published 11 Oct 2016
|Small Great Things.pdf|
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.
"Small Great Things" Reviews
“The State just sees a dead baby. They’re targeting you because they think you failed as a nurse.”
“You’re wrong.” I shake my head in the darkness, and I say the words I’ve swallowed down my whole life. “They’re targeting me because I’m Black."
3 1/2 stars. I have some issues with the ending, but otherwise Small Great Things is such a pageturner. It's the kind of book you can easily stay up until 2am to finish (even without the teething infant to help you along). True, it's Racism 101 for white Americans, but I kind of think it's a message they need to hear.
You know, I guess I had some prejudice against Jodi Picoult before going into this. I had only read one book by her - My Sister's Keeper - and that was at least ten years ago. In my mind, I've always associated her with mindless chick lit novels, especially because people were comparing her to Liane Moriarty on my less than favorable review of Truly Madly Guilty. But if this book is anything to go by, she's vicious.
Small Great Things is a horrible, emotive book that puts both racism and white privilege on trial in a nail-biting courtroom drama.
It all starts when Ruth Jefferson, a black Labor & Delivery nurse, is told to keep away from the newborn son of white supremacists. On the busy ward, though, it is Ruth who finds herself the only nurse in the room when the baby goes into cardiac distress. She hesitates and is arrested on suspicion of not just negligence, but of racially-charged murder.
How am I supposed to encourage my son to be better than most people expect him to be? How can I say, with a straight face, you can be anything you want in this world - when I struggled and studied and excelled and still wound up on trial for something I did not do?
The story moves between the perspectives of Ruth, her white public defender - Kennedy McQuarrie, and the neo-nazi father of the deceased child. Picoult develops all her characters, even painting in a back story for the repulsive Turk Bauer, never allowing him to simply be a villain without context. His life is revealed to us, as is his nauseating journey to white supremacism.
I think this book works so well because it isn't so much about portraying racism through a black woman's eyes as it is about a white "definitely not racist" lawyer facing up to her white privilege, acknowledging its existence, and using it for good. And no, that doesn't mean using it to speak for minorities; it means using it to give them a platform to tell their own story.
Small Great Things could have been all kinds of wrong if the white author had attempted to be a spokesperson for black Americans - but it is instead an appeal to white people to open their eyes. Stop pretending white privilege doesn't exist. There's a tendency among white Americans and Europeans to believe that "I'm not racist" or "I don't even see colour" is somehow good enough. It's not good enough. Not seeing colour is a luxury that only white people have, and most often it's a lie anyway.
Look at me. I consider myself an open-minded, forward-thinking person. Yeah, I give myself a little mental pat on the back for pointing out sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia in books. I'm a dirty liberal (Bernie Sanders is ♥), a former Politics major, with a badass gay brother, a Muslim best friend, and a mixed race baby boy. I'm like a poster child for annoying, white femi-liberal. But a few months ago I noticed something different on Kirkus Reviews. I noticed that all their reviews now state the race of the characters. For example "this white teen" or "the white protagonist". And my first instinct was confusion - why are they doing that? Why do they feel the need to tell us that she's white? It took me several fucking weeks for it to come crashing down on me like a fat ton of white privilege. The question I should have been asking wasn't "why are they telling me they're white?" but "why didn't I need to be told that?" and "why did I assume they were white in the first place?" That was the problem all along. I looked at that and immediately thought it was unnecessary in a way that I didn't feel it was unnecessary to be told if a character was black. Because white is the default. Still. Today. In 2016. Even by rainbow flag-waving weirdos like me. If you say "person", we assume white. And that, my friends, is white privilege.
This book is about all the ways, big and small, life is made more or less restrictive for someone because of the colour of their skin. Kennedy tries to tell herself over and over that the case isn't about race, that racial politics have no place in a courtroom, but as the trial wears on, she can't ignore it. Race is in the courtroom; it always has been.
Everything was going great until the epilogue. I think I understand it - the author probably wanted to show what could happen in an ideal world if white people check their privilege - but it is a little too idealistic, oversimplifying the solution to racism, hate crime and hundreds of years of American history. While the optimism after such an emotionally draining read is welcome, it feels out of place. A book like this gains strength from its realism, not its hopeful fantasies.
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I could probably write a twelve page review on everything I want to talk about from this book, everything I learned from this book. However, my reviews are long as it is so I will try my best to keep it short (well...shorter than twelve pages).
I have read every book by Jodi Picoult and they all make me think. As I've said before I always learn something too. But I feel like this book is the one that hit me hardest. I learned so much and from the moment I started reading it, it has been on my mind.
Ruth Jefferson is the widowed mother of one teenage son, Edison. Her husband died during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. She is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital. A highly skilled nurse with more than twenty years experience.
While doing a regular check-up on a newborn baby, Ruth notices the mother and father glaring at her. She also notices a tattoo on the father's arm. It's a tattoo of a Confederate flag. Only a few minutes later, Ruth is told by her supervisor that she's been reassigned and she's not to touch the Bauer baby. She finds out that the parents are white supremacists and they don't want, Ruth, who is African-American, anywhere near their baby.
The next day at the hospital Ruth happens to be alone in the hospital nursery when the Bauer baby goes into cardiac distress. Ruth has not idea what to do. Does she obey the orders she's been given? Or should she intervene to help the baby who's clearly in need of help?
The story is told from three points of view. The nurse (Ruth), the public defender (Kennedy), and the white supremacist father (Turk).
What Ruth does and doesn't do ends up with her being brought up on serious charges. Kennedy McQuarrie is the white public defender that takes her case. But Ruth doesn't know if she can trust her. Can Kennedy possibly ever understand what life is like for Ruth? They will need to work together. Can Ruth let go of some of the control she's held tightly to all of her life but still say what she really feels? Will Kennedy be able to face the things she learns not only about others but also about herself?
As the trial also plays out in the media it starts to affect Ruth's son. Edison struggles with comments made to him in regards to the color of his skin. Some of these comments hurt even more because they are coming from life-long friends. Ruth's son is an honours student that has always stayed out of trouble. But will what's happening with his mother derail all of his plans?
When I read the first sentence from Turk's point of view, I instantly hated him. I thought there was no way I would find anything redeeming in this character. We read a lot about Turk's upbringing. How he got involved with "The Movement" and the horrible things he had done. We also learn how him and his wife, Brittany met and the life they lived.
This book took me about a week to read. Not because I didn't have time but because I just found it very hard to read at times. The time spent reading Turk's point of view were anxiety inducing. I just couldn't understand such an extreme hatred. It made me angry, sad, and uncomfortable. But maybe that's a good thing?
A quote from the author's note...
"I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know"
I had many conversations with my daughter, mother and friends about racism and racism awareness while reading this book. So many things I didn't even realize that still go on. Not all white supremacists walk around with shaved heads and tattoos letting us know what they stand for. Now they have the internet to network and have learned to hide in plain sight and that is beyond terrifying.
I thought this book was very well written. It was easy to follow the alternating points of view and the characters were so well-developed. As usual I can tell how much research went into this book. Jodi Picoult never ceases to amaze me with how she can both entertain and teach me with her books.
There's so much more I want to say but I will stop here. Although "Small Great Things" is tough to read at times, I think it's an important read and I highly recommend it.
Thank you to Ballantine Books, and Jodi Picoult for the advanced copy of this novel that I received in exchange for my honest review.
I have so much to say about how terrible this book is. I hated it. I hated it so much idk how I even finshed it. I don't think I've ever rolled my eyes this much while reading a book.
I am a black female medical student. The whole premise of this book is completely wrong. There is no way any medical professional was allowing a supervisor's rule prevent them from saving a patient in an emergency. We swear to do no harm and to act in the benefit of the patient. This would never happen, and if it did, then of course the nurse would be guilty of negligent homicide. Ruth is guilty, idgaf what the patient's family said, you save that baby. She has a moral and legal obligation to save that baby. But the point is, that would never happen.
Jodi Picoult is not black. Yet she writes in the point of view of a black woman and her life struggles. She does not know our struggle. There are so many little inaccuracies throughout the book that prove that she was not in the position to tell this story. For example, Ruth got bullied for her light skin. Are you fucking kidding me? Yes there is a division between light skin and dark skin, but dark skin is always always always on the losing side. So that pissed me off. Also, Ruth was the only black nurse in the department? Highly unlikely. Walk into any hospital esp on the east coast there are numerous black nurses. Idk if that was for dramatic effect but no. There was this part where Kennedy was like she told me about weaves and extensions, I told her about sunburns. Black people get sunburns, we know how it works like wtf.
I can't even begin to talk about this damn trial. Picoult really tried, she did. But again, Ruth is the stubborn angry black woman who doesnt listen to counsel and explodes in court. Ughhh everything about this book made me so mad. I hated the little anecdotes and metaphors, hated all of the characters except maybe Violet and Edison. Also the ending was completely ridiculous. But hey it made me laugh that Britt was half black. The scariest thing about this is the prevalence of white supremacists. I mean Donald Trump is our president we have so much to fear.
Maybe I'm nitpicking but all these little things add up and I got so angry while reading this because of how ridiculous it is. If anything, I hope this story inspired white people to pause and acknowledge their implicit bias.
I would suggest greys anatomy for a more realistic take on a similar topic. The episode when a white male supremacist enters the emergency room and he has a nazi tattoo and refuses to be seen by non white physicians, but bailey saves his life anyway because she understands non judgmental regard.
This is a powerful book, bold in some ways , as we have a white author bringing to us a story depicting what racism looks like and trying to tell those of us who are not black, what it feels like . But anyone who has read any of Jodi Picoult's books knows that she doesn't shy away from difficult to discuss topics. I don't think very often about white supremacists . Maybe because there hasn't been much about them in the news on a regular basis (until recently) or maybe because it's so uncomfortable to admit that there are people of this way of thinking around us that it's easier to not think about it . Lately though there has been some news attention to white supremacy as it's ugly face comes out, but the ugly face of racism is front and center in the every day life of Ruth Jefferson in this novel not just with the white supremacists portrayed here . This is what makes Picoult's new novel so relevant.
An African American labor and delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson is on trial for the murder of a newborn baby she tries to save after she was told she could not care for the baby at the request of the white supremacist parents. I couldn't help but like Ruth , a hard working widow who works hard at a job she loves to make a good life for her son. Ruth's narrative alternates with Turk, the baby's father. It was definitely uncomfortable reading what Turk has to say about black people but that's the point - showing it to us , jarring us into seeing it. A third narrative is provided by Ruth's public defender, attorney, Kennedy, who has lived a charmed life and who thinks she's up to the job and not racist. She may very well not be racist but she definitely doesn't know what Ruth is feeling.
Racism is prevalent in other ways than the blatant views of Turk, in the hospital lawyer, from the police , from friends of Ruth's son, a patient thinking the white student nurse was in charge and not Ruth and worst of all for Ruth from people she thought of as good friends. The ending, the twist are a little too pat. Having said that, Picoult has done an admirable job of raising an issue that so needs to be discussed. A compelling story that needs to be read.
Thanks to Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine and NetGalley.
…every baby is born beautiful.A drop of water is a tiny thing. Only a twentieth of a gram. It takes almost six hundred drops to make an ounce, and a hundred twenty eight ounces to make a gallon. That gallon is eight pounds of weight. You can feel the weight of water when you stand on the beach and try to hold your place as waves push you back. It takes only six inches of moving water to take control of your car. If you could stand underneath Niagara Falls you would be pummeled to death by over seventy five thousand gallons, over six hundred thousand pounds a second. Accumulate enough drops and it can carve the earth, move massive objects, or crush a life that gets in its way. Just as the Niagara cascade can be seen as the result of many, many drops of water accumulating to a thunderous, powerful force, so too, many small and not so small race-based slights amass to create a deafening, crushing reality.
It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.
Jodi Picoult- from Time, Inc.
One of the inspirations for Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things was a quote from Martin Luther King: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” She explains in the Author’s note that follows the novel that she knew that characters in the book would “have moments …where they do a small thing that has great and lasting repercussions for others.” While there are plenty of positive small things that take place in the novel, the primary significance is the accumulated impact of the negatives, and trying to gain the vision needed to perceive, and hopefully, address them.
Ruth Jefferson has been a Labor and Delivery nurse in a Connecticut hospital for twenty years. But when a white supremacist couple, Turk and Brittany Bauer, demand that no African American personnel touch their newborn, the hospital goes along. Staffing levels being what they are, Ruth is placed in an untenable position, left alone with the infant when he goes into distress. Catch-22 accomplished. Leave the baby alone and violate ethical norms, or attempt to save the baby and violate the order for her to keep her hands off.
I see Taraji Henson as Ruth - image form Philly.com
What follows is a complicated legal and personal tale. Picoult wrote the book to try to encourage fellow white people to see how racism manifests in myriad ways. This is particularly intended for people who might never see themselves as racist. We trail Ruth as she is victimized by a cruel system. Kennedy is her white lawyer, a liberal with no notion of her own personal biases. Picoult also shows us Turk and Brit, the skinhead couple who spark the conflict.
We see some of how Turk and Brit became the way they are, and get an image of what the lives, worldviews, and tactical considerations are of people in this extreme end of society. Kennedy struggles with her own actions and perceptions. She is our avatar here, feeling righteous, but learning how racism pervades in unsuspected ways, getting educated by Ruth to the reality of pervasive discrimination.
Old Skinheads don’t die. They used to join the KKK, but now they join the Tea Party. Don’t believe me? Go listen to an old Klan speaker and compare it to a speech by a Tea Party Patriot.There is a steady drip, drip, drip of small racial insults that Ruth endures and recalls. Her son gets a taste as well. If you can think of a racial slight, Picoult has incorporated it here. She uses not so much a broad brush as a steamroller to make sure we get the embedded significance. This is not a subtle book. But while it may use a very direct method, there is much here that shows the author’s skill. She does not, for example, settle solely on white on black bias.
Can Leslie Jones play Adisa? Please? - image from Cnet
My mama used to tell a story about how, once, she was pushing me in a stroller in our neighborhood in Harlem, and two black ladies passed her. One of them said to the other, She walkin’ around like that her baby. That ain’t her baby. I hate when nannies do that. I was light-skinned, compared to Mama. She laughed it off, because she knew the truth—I was hers, through and through. But the thing is, growing up, it wasn’t the white kids who made me feel worst about myself. It was the black kids.”Ruth is warmly and fully drawn. It is very easy to relate to her strength, determination and vulnerability. Her particular circumstances may be alien to most white readers, but there are similarities in how whites struggle with class that will give Ruth’s experiences resonance. Most of all, Ruth is a good person, and anyone, of any color or background, can relate to that, and hope for her to come through it all ok. This portrayal of Ruth is the strongest element in the book.
I totally see Grace Gummer as Kennedy - image from Hollywood reporter
Second is the legal wrangling. It is pretty clear that Picoult is on firm ground here, as her depiction of the lawyerly digging, evaluation and perspective feels very well-informed. The legal strategies discussed make sense, the approaches are defensible, and the courtroom portions of the book race along with the speed of a thriller. Picoult does a pretty good job of pointing out where a lawyerly perspective can be at odds with the actual content of a case. Kennedy tells Ruth,
Any public defender will tell you that even though the majority of our clients are people of color, you can’t play the race card during a trial.OJ might disagree about the effectiveness of using race in a trial.
That’s because it’s sure suicide in a courtroom to bring up race. You don’t know what your jury is thinking. Or can’t be sure of what your judge believes. In fact, the easiest way to lose a case that has a racially motivated incident at its core it to actually call it what it is. Instead you find something else for the jury to hang their hat on. Some shred of evidence that can clear your client of blame, and allow those twelve men and women to go home still pretending that the world we live in is an equal one.
How about Shannon Woodward for Brit Bauer? - image from Rotten Tomatoes
Picoult draws on real-world situations for her tale. A labor and delivery nurse in Flint, Michigan really was asked to not touch a racist’s infant. A significant portion of her skinhead character Turk was based on a real-world bigot. Check out the link in EXTRA STUFF for more on this one. It is pretty interesting.
This is not a great literary novel. You will not be dazzled by poetic description, or impressed by literary artifice. It is a straight ahead tale told very effectively and is intended to deliver a specific point. It succeeds quite well in that aim, and gives us some very human characters to engage with while on that journey.
I do not know what it is like to exist inside a black skin in 21st century America. Never could, never will. But Jodi Picoult is trying to give people like me a bit more of a clue what it feels like to have that experience. I do not have a basis for saying how well that succeeds. But, like the force that accumulates from the many small, great things that conspire to destroy, maybe Picoult’s book offers one more small great thing that, when combined with many other small great things can generate a force large enough to cascade down on our long national original sin and help clear the way for a better tomorrow.
Published – October 11, 2016
Review – November 11, 2016
PS - I have zero intel on a movie option for the book, but cannot believe this one has not already been snapped up. While I had some pretty firm images in my head for actors in certain roles, I came up blank for others, Turk, for example. Gerald McRaney for Francis Mitchum, popped to mind, but he might be a hard sell playing someone as much younger as the character is.
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and FB pages
In this NPR interview, Picoult talks about things that inspired her to write this novel
There is a nice bit in Picoult’s site about how she researched her skinhead characters.
Then I met with two former skinheads, to develop a vocabulary of hate for my White Supremacist character. My daughter Sammy was the one who found Tim Zaal – a former skinhead who had Skyped with her class in high school. Years ago, Tim beat up and left a gay man for dead.April 28, 2016 – A lovely bit of data gathering from the Washington Post - The most racist places in America, according to Google - by Christopher Ingraham - It might suggest some places where you would prefer not to live.
Please check out, The Forgiveness Project. While Zaal’s tale is not specific to racism, it is very much about bigotry and fascistic violence.