Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.

“What if the best thing for Ruth isn’t winning this case?” Micah replies. “What if the reason this is so important to her isn’t because of what she’s going to say… but rather the fact that she is finally being given the chance to say it?”

With unsurpassed grace and courage Jodi Picoult tackles yet another formidable subject in her newest novel Small Great Things.

The story opens with young Ruth accompanying her mother to work as a domestic servant in the home of a wealthy white family. When the woman of the house, Ms. Mina, goes into labor we witness the planting of the seeds of passion and discontent. The first for her work as a labor and delivery nurse and the second for her life as a black woman.

When I tell people this story, they assume the miracle I am referring to during that long-ago blizzard was the birth of a baby. True, that was astonishing. But that day I witnessed a greater wonder. As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama’s, there was a moment— one heartbeat, one breath— where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another. That miracle, I’ve spent thirty-nine years waiting to see again.

Flash forward and Ruth is a grown woman with a family of her own working as a nurse in her dream specialty. It is her interaction with one family that causes it all to unravel.

The Bauers are a young couple expecting their first child. They are White Supremacists. The last thing they could ever imagine is a black woman caring for their newborn.

Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks.

Turk requests to have Ruth removed from the care of their son and to have no one who looks like her attend to his care.

When the baby seizes and falls into arrest Ruth is the only nurse available to provide resuscitation. Battleing against her instincts as a nurse and a request from a family that prevents her from using them, Ruth is forced to make a choice.

I push past her and skirt the grieving parents and the dead baby and barely make it to the restroom before I am violently ill. I press my forehead to the cool porcelain lip of the toilet and close my eyes, and even then I can still feel it: the give of the rippled rib cage under my fingers, the whoosh of his blood in my own ears, the acid truth on my tongue: had I not hesitated, that baby might still be alive.

What follows is a trial fueled by racism that was ignited by the very prejudices that still smolder in society today. But what we are left with is a remarkable story of triumph where love wins out.

Picoult’s eloquence as a storyteller gives breath and spirit to a topic that is vastly underrepresented. She strikes a chord with the timely release of this story. Timeliness aside, the messages in this novel can and should be shared again and again and again. This is more than just a novel- it is a conversation, a lesson, a guide.

I would like to step outside my normal review format to share some important quotes from the authors note at the end of this novel.

Picoult delves deeper into the prevalence of racism in this country by reminding us that racism is not measured in extremes.

But even if we took every white supremacist on the planet and shipped them off to Mars, there would still be racism. That’s because racism isn’t just about hate. We all have biases, even if we don’t think we do. It’s because racism is also about who has power … and who has access to it.

It is about unacknowledged and often unnoticed privileges that perpetuate its existence.

Sure, it’s so much easier to see the headwinds of racism, the ways that people of color are discriminated against. We see it now when a black man is accidentally shot by the police and a girl with brown skin is bullied by classmates for wearing a hijab. It’s a little harder to see— and to own up to— the tailwinds of racism, the ways that those of us who aren’t people of color have benefited just because we’re white. We can go to a movie and be pretty certain that most of the main characters will look like us. We can be late for a meeting and not have it blamed on our race.

So she pens an impassioned call to action that could not be more true or more necessary.

There is a fire raging , and we have two choices: we can turn our backs, or we can try to fight it. Yes, talking about racism is hard to do, and yes, we stumble over the words— but we who are white need to have this discussion among ourselves. Because then, even more of us will overhear, and then— I hope— the conversation will spread.

I hear you and I hope that by reading your novel and by sharing this review I can help, even if it is in the smallest way, for humanity to do some great things.

Read voraciously.

Thoughts?

Intrigued? Buy the book here:

Small Great Things A Novel
by James Herriot
Hardcover
Powells.com

A review copy of this title was provided by Random House via Netgalley.

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