Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Jodi Picoult named her novel “Small Great Things” as a tribute to this saying. She believes that when it comes to talking about racism, Dr. King’s words have the most eloquence, resonance and wisdom. The two main protagonists of her novel, Ruth Jefferson, an African American labor and delivery nurse and Kennedy McQuarrie, a White public defender, both have “moments in this novel where they do a small thing that has great and lasting repercussions for others.”
Ruth has been a nurse for over twenty years, she is a skilled professional and a caring individual who genuinely looks out for her patients whether they need an epidural or some Maybelline lipstick. She also helps a Muslim couple fulfill their heartfelt wish that the first words their newborn hears murmured in his ears is about the greatness of Allah. She is the only African American in her ward and she lives in a predominantly White suburb with her son Edison who is an Honors student. She is a widow, her husband died while serving in Afghanistan. She has assimilated and integrated well into the White world and dismisses micro aggressions as nothing serious, “White people don’t mean half the offensive things that come out of their mouths, and so I try not to let myself get rubbed the wrong way”
Turk and Brit, a White supremacist couple, do not want Ruth to look after their newborn baby and make a specific request that “No African American personnel” should care for their baby. Ruth is perplexed and feels insulted when it hits her with “the force of a blow” that the couple do not have a problem with how she does her job, just with who she is, and the color of her skin.
Turk is a hard core racist who agrees with the view that “Killing a nigger is equal to killing a deer." His anger at having his brother die in a road accident from being hit by an African American driver who goes scot-free in court has been fueled by a history of bad parenting and involvement with leaders of hate groups who have brainwashed and influenced him to choose a path of prejudice. Ruth thinks to herself, “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.”
Unfortunately, while Ruth is alone in the nursery Turk and Brit’s baby goes into cardiac distress. She attempts to help the baby but backs off when the head nurse enters as she is terrified that she may get into trouble for not obeying the specific orders of staying away from the baby. The head nurse calls for help, CPR is administered but the baby dies of cardiac arrest. The parents are enraged and unfairly accuse Ruth of negligence and murder.
Ruth is in disbelief. None of her friends or coworkers have her back. She feels alone, isolated and alienated. She wonders if she has been ignoring the reality of racism. She realizes how she has been making excuses for her coworker making a remark about how well her son is doing in school for a boy like him, for a patient who assumes that the young White nursing student is her supervisor. Even though she is well accepted in her White neighborhood she thinks it has just been an “optical illusion”, she can never be one of them. “Have I really never noticed these things before?” Ruth wonders. “Or have I been very studiously keeping my eyes shut?”
Her dark skinned sister Adisa who lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood comes to her aid and becomes her anchor in this time of crisis and the estranged sisters are closer than ever. Kennedy McQuarrie is a public defender who is well intentioned, does not consider herself racist and wants to fight for justice for the underdog. She takes up Ruth’s case and suggests to her that they should keep race out of the legal proceedings and arguments.
The courtroom drama has lots of interesting twists and turns. Ruth is told to act one way but when she is on the stand she throws caution to the winds and speaks from her heart. She takes racism which is the “elephant in the room” and parades it for everyone to see and feel. Kennedy learns and grows a lot from this journey. She truly understands that racism is deeply permeated into society, and even the liberals and progressives among us do not understand the extent to which White privilege does exist.
The novel is long but it does hold your interest and there are small spurts of humor provided mostly by Kennedy and her witty husband and daughter. It is funny when one of the pregnant ladies says she could propose to her anesthesiologist as he calmed the excruciating labor pains. The surprise/bombshell ending of the novel is unlike anything you would have expected while reading it. Nothing in the novel foreshadows or prepares you for the epilogue.
Roxane Gay writes in the New York Times that the novel “starts to feel excessive and desperately didactic.” She also says that the “Blackness is clinical, over articulated” and “not authentic.” The criticism seems harsh. The characters are very believable and relatable. The situations, micro aggressions and discriminations are real and happen in society every day. According to some critics, Jodi Picoult is guilty of trying to include every racial stereotype, cliché and concern in the novel but she has to be applauded for trying to put herself in the shoes of African Americans and according to the Washington Post, “It’s exciting to have a high profile writer like Picoult take an earnest risk to expand our cultural conversation about race and prejudice.” Popsugar writes, “Jodi Picoult is never afraid to take on hot topics, and in Small Great Things, she tackles race and discrimination in a way that will grab hold of you and refuse to let you go. . . . This page-turner is perfect for book clubs."
Some mindful quotes from the book include:
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are - Benjamin Franklin”
“Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed.”
“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn't fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, and modify yourself to fit? How come we haven't been able to change the puzzle instead?”
“Active racism is telling a nurse supervisor that an African American nurse can’t touch your baby. It’s snickering at a black joke. But passive racism? It’s noticing there’s only one person of color in your office and not asking your boss why. It’s reading your kid’s fourth-grade curriculum and seeing that the only black history covered is slavery, and not questioning why. It’s defending a woman in court whose indictment directly resulted from her race…and glossing over that fact, like it hardly matters.”
“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.”
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced - James Baldwin"
“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love - Nelson Mandela"
“Every baby is born beautiful. It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.”
“All mothers worry, but Black mothers, we have to worry a little bit more.”
“Fox News. A channel that Micah and I do not generally watch. A channel that would easily be the home of multiple ads about erectile dysfunction”
“He has a reptile dysfunction.”
“Adisa says the word assimilation with so much venom that you’d think anyone who chooses it like I did is swallowing poison."
“Must you argue everything?"
"Yeah. I'm a lawyer.”
“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?”
“Freedom is the fragile neck of a daffodil, after the longest of winters. It’s the sound of your voice, without anyone drowning you out. It’s having the grace to say yes, and more important, the right to say no. At the heart of freedom, hope beats: a pulse of possibility.”
If you are interested in reading more fiction books on the topics of racism and discrimination in America, click here
Research and Readers Advisory Professional
Loves learning about other cultures and broadening her reading horizons through a vast selection of multicultural fiction.