Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Fiction Review: Small Great Things

My son gave me Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult's latest novel, for my birthday this summer, and I just finished reading it. Like all of Picoult's novels, it delves deep into an important but difficult topic - in this case, racism - with realistic characters and a gripping plot. It's a courtroom drama with an eye-opening message.

Ruth Jefferson, an African-American woman, got her nursing degree at Yale and has worked for 20 years as a Labor and Delivery nurse at Mercy-West Haven Hospital. Her husband died during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, so Ruth has mostly raised their son, Edison, on her own. Edison is an honor student who is starting to look at colleges. Ruth loves her job, and is very good at it, a compassionate and caring nurse with both mothers and newborns. Then, she encounters a kind of blatant racism she's never experienced before, when Turk and Brittany, a couple who are white supremacists, ask that Ruth be removed from their service. She's been explicitly told not to touch their baby, so when she is alone in the nursery when he goes into cardiac arrest, she must make a quick decision: does she obey her training to perform CPR and go against her supervisor's direct orders? Ultimately, this split-second decision results in a court trial and media circus. Kennedy, a white woman who works as a public defender, takes on Ruth's case, and the two women must slowly learn to trust each other.

As always, Picoult has a talent here for delving into the gray areas of an issue that seems (literally, here) black and white. We all know that overt racism of the kind practiced by Turk and Brit is a horrible thing, but what about the subtle kinds of racism - often coming from those who believe they are not racist - that Black people encounter every single day in thousands of different ways? As she did in Nineteen Minutes (about a school shooting), Picoult takes us behind the scenes on all sides of the issue, so there are chapters written from the perspectives of Ruth, Kennedy, and even Turk. Turk's chapters are absolutely chilling to read because he believes in and does such terrible things, but I suppose that's the point, isn't it? Ruth's perspective is complicated, with feelings mixed in from her own upbringing, where her mother worked as a domestic for a wealthy white family and Ruth was friends with their daughter and attended a private school where she was one of the only Black students. Kennedy's insights are equally stunning, as she slowly becomes aware of the subtle ways that she has benefited from white privilege without even seeing it. Small Great Things is a complex and suspenseful courtroom drama that keeps you guessing until the very end...and thinking for long after you finish the book.

464 pages, Ballantine Books

P.S. I was surprised this morning to turn on the TV and see a reformed white supremacist on the Megyn Kelly portion of the Today show, talking about how the movement went underground in order to become more powerful, with former skinheads trying to fit in and look more normal while still pushing their heinous agenda, and sharing the details of his former life. It was like seeing the fictional Turk suddenly turn up on a real-life talk show! That just proves what a thorough job Picoult does with her research. Click the link for a disturbing and educational interview.

Disclosure: I received this book as a gift. My review is my own opinion.

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  1. Small Great Things was so terrifying and so good. I'm glad you liked it.