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Small Great Things


Small Great Things

Talk about sensitive subjects: In her latest novel, SMALL GREAT THINGS, bestselling author Jodi Picoult has not only chosen the touchiest possible topic --- racism --- but has taken the risk of telling her story in part from the point of view of an African-American woman.

Picoult has never shied away from controversy; she invites it. Her plucked-from-the-headlines, socially conscious themes have ranged from school shootings to the Holocaust, autism to capital punishment, sexual abuse to teen suicide. But in the past, I think she could be reasonably confident that she and her audience shared the same progressive sensibility: the belief that ethical quandaries are complex things, not easily disentangled or resolved, and the conviction that decency will ultimately triumph.

These days, however, the conversation about race has changed. In light of the harassment and murder of African Americans, the stacked deck of the legal system, the horrifying prison realities, nobody with an ounce of awareness or compassion could imagine that we live in a “post-racial” society where prejudice is a thing of the past. Yet there is still a tendency to assume that right-thinking people like ourselvesare not part of the problem.

Picoult has chosen to highlight the limits of that liberal mindset: to challenge and perhaps alter the attitudes of her prime readers. In an Author’s Note following the novel, she says explicitly that she is “writing to my own community --- white people --- who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s a racist…but who can’t recognize racism in themselves.”

"[Picoult] again proves a terrific storyteller, smoothly combining flashbacks to her characters’ earlier lives with the present-day crisis and ramping up the tension in courtroom scenes.... SMALL GREAT THINGS makes it clear that inclusiveness requires a commitment from us all. Nothing could be more important."

The narrative in SMALL GREAT THINGS alternates among three voices. Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse in a Connecticut hospital --- the only black R.N. on the birthing pavilion --- with two decades of experience and a deep commitment to her work. When the white supremacist parents of a newborn, Turk and Brittany Bauer, object to Ruth’s caring for their baby, she is taken off the case. But the next day, while Ruth is alone on the ward, the Bauer infant begins to sicken. Should she intervene or, as instructed, stand back? Ultimately, the baby dies, and the Bauers have her arrested for murder. Ruth is a highly educated woman who always (unlike her firebrand sister) wanted to “blend in.” Now she finds herself reduced to the color of her skin, and condemned because of it.

Turk Bauer is the second narrator, and one of the first things out of his mouth is the n-word. He has poured all the rage and frustration of his life into scapegoating black people, gay people, Jews --- anybody different. It’s hard for a reader to engage with this horrifying man, though Picoult does her best to show us the roots of his violence.

The third voice belongs to Kennedy McQuarrie, the public defender who takes Ruth’s case. Kennedy is the character, I presume, most like Picoult herself: a smart, feisty professional; a wife and mother; a white woman who considers herself, at least at first, prejudice-free. Her husband, an ophthalmologist, makes enough money that she doesn’t have to: “As a public defender I was never going to get rich, but I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror.”

All of these characters evolve in the course of the story, through the crucible of the court case. Even for an out-and-out Nazi like Turk, Picoult argues for the possibility of change. She has always been a novelist who resists cynicism or bleakness; her approach is to take on knotty, painful subjects, examine them through characters we care about, and bring their stories to a satisfying conclusion. In SMALL GREAT THINGS, she again proves a terrific storyteller, smoothly combining flashbacks to her characters’ earlier lives with the present-day crisis and ramping up the tension in courtroom scenes. There are resounding echoes of provocative television miniseries like “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”and “The Night Of.” But there is also a touch of the formulaic, with a plot twist at the end that feels engineered, and a coda, set six years later, that I found it hard to believe in.

Picoult's boldest choice was to write from Ruth’s perspective, but I’m not sure the gamble pays off. Although the Author’s Note tells us that Picoult sat down to talk with women of color, took a workshop called Undoing Racism, and tried in every possible way to educate herself, Ruth still seems to me more a symbol than a fully realized person. When she argues with her activist sister or with Kennedy, she often makes speeches (there is a lot of speech making in this novel). I have the sense that Picoult was so vigilant, so fearful of betraying a shred of bias, that it was difficult for her to write freely. 

I understand why Picoult felt that SMALL GREAT THINGS was above all Ruth’s story, and that it would be another form of prejudice to tell it from the sole perspective of a white lawyer. Yet Kennedy is a more successful character, and her transformation --- becoming aware of her own privilege, her own assumptions --- is the heart of the book. Although Kennedy tells Ruth, early in their relationship, that “the only race that matters is the human one,” she comes to realize that “racism isn’t just about hate. We all have biases, even if we don’t think we do.... [R]acism is also about who has power...and who has access to it.”

The title of this novel --- from a Martin Luther King quote: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way” --- is fitting, for it is not always in the grand drama of the trial that Picoult’s characters see racism in action (and, potentially, make room for change), but in everyday gestures and encounters: the woman in the hospital cafeteria who moves her purse as if to secure it when Ruth comes near; the way Ruth’s voice changes when she’s talking on the phone to a white person; the scene where a white nursing student, shadowing Ruth on the ward, is assumed by a patient to be the one in charge; the store personnel who single out Ruth as a possible shoplifter while leaving Kennedy alone. Ruth remembers the way her soldier husband, now dead, wearing a tux on their wedding day, was assumed by a hotel guest to be a bellhop. She feels for Edison, her teenage son, when his longtime best friend --- white --- objects to him dating his sister.

These, to me, are the most powerful moments of the novel, and the ones that will stay with me as I move around my own multiracial city and put my own behavior to the test. SMALL GREAT THINGS makes it clear that inclusiveness requires a commitment from us all. Nothing could be more important.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on October 13, 2016

Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult

  • Publication Date: February 20, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345544978
  • ISBN-13: 9780345544971