Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

I have a lot to say about this book!

It is about Ruth, a black midwife, who finds herself the defendant of a manslaughter trial after a baby dies on her ward. The parents of the child are white supremisists who asked that Ruth not be allowed to touch the baby. Despite this blatant discrimination, Ruth does as she is asked until she is left alone with the baby, due to another emergency on the ward, and the baby goes into cardiac arrest.

As a very experienced nurse, Ruth is put into a horrible situation and she believes that she becomes a scapegoat for the poor baby’s death because she is black. Looking at it objectively, it is hard to argue that this is not true; Ruth tried to save the baby’s life along with all the other doctors and nurses and there really needn’t have been any criminal trial at all.

The novel explores this institutional racism as well as the obvious racism of the white supremisists. And largely I think Picoult handles the topic really well. In the author’s note at the end, she describes how difficult it is to broach a subject that is not ‘yours’ and she understands that as a white author, she may receive (perfectly valid) criticism from people of colour who think she is speaking for them. 

However she also describes that in her decision to write this novel was the determination to face a topic that can be uncomfortable to discuss because it forces you to acknowledge your own complicity in a racist society. I think this is so important and if any white readers can learn something about unconscious bias from this book and learn to change, then it is worth the criticism. And I include myself in this too – one of the reasons I liked the book was because I could see myself in the character of Kennedy, the white lawyer who represents Ruth. Kennedy is a well-meaning liberal, who represents many underprivileged people of colour in her work as a defence lawyer, so she never thinks for a moment that she could be racist. Yet Ruth shows her  her unconscious bias and the privilege that Kennedy takes for granted. In one of her first meetings with Ruth, Kennedy says ‘I don’t see colour’ and Ruth shows her how this just isn’t true – pretending that everyone is equal in our current society does not help anyone. 

Kennedy expresses an uncomfortableness about discussing race because she is afraid of saying the wrong thing or of causing offence (this is something I think I can be guilty of). But this means she doesn’t seek out a real dialogue with those she wants to help and this can be just as damaging. I think this realisation of Kennedy’s was really well executed and in this way Ruth helps Kennedy just as much as Kennedy helps Ruth. Ruth has a voice and she doesn’t let Kennedy speak for her.

The story is told jointly from Ruth and Kennedy’s persepectives’ and we also get the narrative of Turk, the white supremisist father. This was definitely an interesting addition to the novel as I can’t think of another book I’ve read where such an extreme viewpoint is given a central role in the narrative. I’m not sure I ever felt any sympathy for Turk and definitely not for his wife, Brit, who seems even more horrible than him, but it was a good counterpoint. Picoult shows the inner workings of Turk’s hate group and she shows how these groups often target vulnerable individuals to recruit – racially motivated violence becomes an outlet for their anger. In my opinion this is no excuse. This kind of explaining away seems to happen a lot in the media; when a white person does something horrendous, they are described as ‘troubled’, while a person of another race or ethnicity gets no such sympathetic descriptions, instead they are just pure ‘evil’. I understand Picoult’s aim to show the intricacies and nuances that inevitably make up any group of people but I also think this ‘vulnerable’ narrative lets them off too easy; lots of people are ‘vulnerable’ and they don’t turn to hate.

That aside, I really enjoyed the courtroom drama that Picoult does so well – it is fast-paced and compulsively readable. I finished the book in 2 days (I was on holiday so this is a bit quicker than usual!) because I just couldn’t put it down. There are some really insightful and well-written passages, particularly the examples of racism that Ruth and her son experience. One such occasion is when the police come to arrest Ruth and then the later descriptions of it in court. The police break their way into the house at 3am and trash the place in the process of ‘searching for evidence’. They also unnecessarily handcuff Ruth’s teenage son because, as the police officer in court says, he was ‘an angry, black male’. It is quite plain that this is NOT how a white person would be treated. You would laugh at the ridiculousness of what the police officer says if it weren’t such a real and serious problem.

However there are other parts where the examples of racism seemed a little contrived. I’m not doubting that these things happen in real life at all but in the book they seemed rather forced, as though Picoult was determined to show some really clear-cut examples. For instance, there is a moment when Kennedy notices a homeless old, white lady being given more attention from strangers than a young, black homeless man who just happens to be on the same street. These instances lack the authenticity that could have made this book even more powerful; it feels too much like Picoult is trying to spoon-feed you the moral of the story.

My main issue with the book, however, is the ending (this is definitely a bit of a spoiler so don’t read any further if you want to read this book). It transpires that Brit’s mother, who left when she was a baby, was a black woman. Brit never knew and her father, an influential white supremist leader, never thought to mention this highly hypocritical fact. I really disliked this relevation. It does not have any bearing on the trial, or really on the plot of the book at all. It just seems wholly unrealistic and it really blew the ending for me. It makes an obviously well-researched and serious novel seem sensationalist and ridiculous.

Unfortunately this part of the ending was quite a big flaw for me. But I also feel it seems a bit harsh to judge the book solely on this when there are so many good things about it too. Overall I think it is a brave and thought-provoking book and, despite my criticisms, I would definitely recommend it.

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5 thoughts on “Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

  1. I definitely agree with what you’re saying and I struggled with much of the ‘contrived’ aspects as well. What I had to keep reminding myself was that the target audience was women (mostly) who really have never examined their racist tendencies, so for them these scenarios were probably very easy to relate to at a surface level.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading my review! Yes, I think you’re right – it is quite unusual for a more mass market book to tackle a big theme like this so for some readers it may be the first time they have chosen to read something overtly ‘about’ race and white privilege.

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      1. This is something I’ve always loved about her books is she does a great job of exposing, even at the most introductory level, her readers to more controversial topics. I hope this can serve as a catalyst for some to explore the topic deeper.

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      2. I completely agree – I really admire the fact that she’s not afraid to write about big themes and issues, especially when she has such a large reach in terms of readership.

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