Ruth Jefferson is an African-American nurse who is pulled from the care of a newborn patient upon the request of his white supremacist parents. When the child dies while Ruth is alone in the ward, she is charged with causing his death, either through negligence or wilful murder. The story is told through three perspectives: Ruth’s, the baby’s father Turk, and Ruth’s lawyer Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender and a liberal who is forced by this trial to confront her own privilege and unconscious racism.
Jodi Picoult is never one to shy away from relevant social issues, and Small Great Things is no exception. To be honest, I don’t know quite how I feel about a white author telling a story of a Black woman’s experience of racism. To be fair, Picoult acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of this in her Author’s Note, and admits she struggled with it personally. Her solution was that she wasn’t writing it “to tell people of colour what their own lives were like” but rather “to my own community,” white people who recognize racism in a neo-Nazi skinhead but can’t recognize their own racism. I also don’t know how I feel about a story of racism becoming a story about confronting one’s own white privilege, but I admit that’s my own bias going in, and I may have felt differently if the author were a person of colour.
To Picoult’s credit, Kennedy realizes the importance of letting Ruth speak for herself on the stand, despite the risk it poses for their case. Kennedy also learns that some of the beliefs she’s long held as “liberal” are actually problematic, for example, the idea that she “doesn’t see colour.” That being said, there’s a moment near the end that made me cringe, where Kennedy gives her closing remarks to the jury and Ruth thinks
What Kennedy has said to all those strangers, it’s been the narrative of my life, the outline inside of which I have lived. But I could have screamed it from the rooftops, and it wouldn’t have done any good. For the jurors to hear it, really hear it, it had to be said by one of their own. [p. 432]
Yikes. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with Kennedy giving the closing remarks, because obviously, she’s the lawyer. Also to be fair, there is probably some truth in Ruth’s assertion above. But to have a Black character think this, particularly after they’ve had their own moment to speak and particularly within the context of celebration at potentially winning the case, felt wrong. It feels like buying into the whole White Saviour trope, and it hurt to read.
That being said, the story was engaging and an entertaining read. I like Kennedy’s character arc, and I especially like the dynamic between Ruth and her son Edison. I also like how Picoult includes Turk’s perspective, because on one hand, he’s a totally reprehensible character but on the other hand, he’s also an object of sympathy, because he’s lost his son. It’s disturbing to think that the things in Turk’s life that Picoult writes about are true (e.g. children’s parties where the piñata is shaped like a person of colour and where rather than pin the tail on the donkey, they pin a star on a Jew), but there likely are such horrible people in the world, and I’m sure there’s much worse than what Picoult included.
Picoult’s endings usually feature a surprise twist or two, and while I usually enjoy her books, I often don’t like the endings because these twists feel contrived to me. True to form, there is a surprise twist in this book as well, which I felt was unnecessary, but I actually liked the ending overall. The twist in this case felt like a minor hiccup that didn’t really change the outcome, and while the ending still felt a bit convenient, it also seemed fitting for the story and I’m glad that it happened.
I do have some mixed feelings about this book, but overall, it’s an entertaining read that prompts reflection about some difficult subjects. As Picoult points out, it’s easy to see racism when it’s someone else perpetuating it, especially if they have a swastika tattooed on their head, but it’s also important to see our own complicity in it, and to see the ways in which despite our liberal beliefs, we can also be racist.
Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.