Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Small Great Things is the May book club pick for the FLICKS Book and Movie (aka Rogue) Club.  I think this novel will provide ample discussion at our book club next week.

Ruth Jefferson has been a labor and delivery nurse for twenty years.  She’s a widow who loves her job and her son, Edison.  She has been trying to make a great life for Edison making sure they are in a good school district and putting away money for his education. One day, Ruth is doing a routine check on a newborn and feels an odd vibe in the room, especially after the father tells her to stay away from his wife and that he wants to see her supervisor.  Ruth then finds out that they do not want any African American personnel working on their child.  As the only African American labor and delivery nurse, Ruth feels affronted.  Later during an emergency, Ruth hesitates to perform CPR on the baby before the rest of the staff get there.  Did this hesitation cause the baby’s death? 

Ruth’s world is torn apart with losing her job, her nursing license, and getting arrested.  White public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie gets her case, but says they must not mention race in the courtroom.  Kennedy gets to know Ruth and her story and her thoughts about race make a change in Kennedy throughout the novel.  Will Ruth end up in jail or will the truth set her free?

The story was told through the point of view of Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk, the white supremacist father.  I liked the different viewpoints, but really felt this was Ruth’s story.  I had a real hard time reading Turk’s chapters.

I’m really torn on this novel.  The story was definitely page turning, but several notes of the story rang false to me.  First of all, I kept thinking this book was hitting so many items from my Living Inclusively and Teaching Inclusively classes – sometimes word for word on discussions we had in class.  Then I got to the Acknowledgments section and saw a thanks to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum who literally wrote the textbook we used in our classes.  Overall, this made the book odd to me at times like it was a part of a classroom lecture.

Secondly, just like in that class, I had problems with the thesis set forth by modern diversity classes.  As Picoult states in her afterword, “I expect pushback from this book.  I will have people of color challenging me for choosing a topic that doesn’t belong to me.  I will have white people challenging me for calling them on their racism.”  I had a problem with both of these items.  I feel that novels or non-fiction written by African Americans on their experiences ring so much truer - such as The Color Purple, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and The Grace of Silence.  I had a problem that in this book Picoult seems to think there are only two kinds of white people – raging racists, and everyone else who things they are not racist, but really are inside.  This was the general premise of my diversity class as well.  Why is there not room for a third type of white person that respects people of all backgrounds and understands history and the struggles that African Americans have gone through?  That we truly can’t understand the African American experience as we aren’t African American, but we can acknowledge that they have a lot to deal with that a white person never has to experience?  I feel like the tenants of Dr. Beverly Tatum that are parroted by Picoult are only used to drive a wedge between people with no path forward.

Third, I had a problem with the characterizations of the white supremacists.  They were 100% evil and it was hard to feel any empathy for them.  They were one dimensional and without trying to give anything away, the ending of the book rang false as we hadn’t really gotten to know these characters besides the fact that they were very terrible people who had no problem with beating up others and killing neighbors’ dogs.  I’m not a fan of white supremacists, but to make this novel work, especially the ending, having them written as multi-dimensional would have served the story so much better.

I thought it was clever that the baby involved in the story is named Davis and Ruth’s last name was Jefferson.  I’m not sure if that was intentional to make me think about Jefferson Davis and the confederacy.

The White supremacists sections were frightening.  To think that such people live amongst us and have gatherings in the woods to sell swastikas and the like with their families is horrifying.  It would explain a lot of what we see today.

I related to Kennedy discovering that her mother watches Fox news with her young daughter and her displeasure with it.  I have the same thing happening to my own children.  Also a quote from her mother “You know, if they weren’t so angry all of the time, maybe more people would listen to them,” could have directly come from many of my family members.

Favorite quotes:
“I don’t have a problem with white people.  I live in a white community; I have white friends; I send my son to a predominantly white school.  I treat them the way I want to be treated – based on their individual merits as human beings, not on their skin tone.” – Ruth

“Trayvon was a good kid, a smart boy.  You are a respected nurse.  The reason that judge didn’t want to bring race – the same reason your lawyer is skirting like it’s the plague – is because Black people like you and Trayvon are supposed to be the exceptions.  You are the very definition of when bad things happen to good people.  Because that is the only way white gatekeepers can make excuses for their behavior.  But what if that’s not the truth?  What if you and Trayvon aren’t the exceptions . . . but the rule?  What if injustice is the standard?” – Wallace Mercy

“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." (Kennedy and Ruth)

Overall, Small Great Things is a page-turning novel that should prompt good discussion at my book club.  I felt that the storyline was too much like my diversity textbook at times and didn’t really flesh out the “bad guys” to give the ending believability.  For a great book on diversity and living the African American experience I would highly recommend The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris.

Book Source:  The Kewaunee Public Library


  1. Laura, thank you for your honest review of this book. The quotations give me a glimpse into it, which I appreciate.

  2. I've never read anything by this author, and not sure I will.

    I liked the way you put this:
    >Why is there not room for a third type of white person that respects people of all backgrounds and understands history and the struggles that African Americans have gone through? That we truly can’t understand the African American experience as we aren’t African American, but we can acknowledge that they have a lot to deal with that a white person never has to experience?

    I read to empathize, to understand what my own sphere of life doesn't/cannot include, and I know I am not alone.