For Christmas 2007, a friend of mine got me Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. That book led to Nineteen Minutes, Keeping Faith, Plain Truth, Mercy, Handle With Care, The Tenth Circle and Change of Heart. I read so many of them, in a relatively short period of time, that they started to run together. Lone Wolf was the last Picoult book I read and it made me decide to take a break from her work for a while.
I heard amazing things about The Storyteller, a book she co-wrote with her teenage daughter, but wasn’t ready to come back.
Enter: Small Great Things.
A summary from Picoult’s website: Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?
Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.
I’ve been struggling to write this review. Not because I didn’t like the book. I loved the book. The book challenged me. It’s a tale told with empathy and compassion and clear eyes.
I am struggling to write this review because this book feels too big. What am I going to say that Picoult herself hasn’t already?
I loved this book. It’s a heavy book – the chapters told from the perspective of the white supremacist felt ugly and hateful; Ruth’s chapters were heavy with burden, a struggle to play by all the rules, and a slowly burning anger at how she’s being treated; and Kennedy’s chapters showed us a woman doing her job, blind to how race affects her work, content in the idea that she ‘doesn’t see colour.’
In other Picoult books that I’ve read, it seems like a lot of the conflict is within family units. Parents and children, husbands and wives on opposites sides of a case. In Small Great Things, the conflict is so much bigger than a family and the people on either side are not related. In this way, Small Great Things feels more universal than Picoult’s other work.
Early on, I worried that this would be another book where a white person ‘saves’ a black one, that the white person becomes the hero of a black person’s story. This book is Ruth’s story. It is her life that matters here. Picoult handles this challenge with aplomb and when I read the Author’s Note in the end, I could see that she put a lot of work into ensuring that she didn’t run into that problem.
The one thing I wasn’t totally on board with was the redemption offered to the baby’s father. It felt too perfect, too Utopian in a world where that would never happen. But again, reading the Author’s Note clarified her decision for me. I can see why she did it but I’m still not sure that I agree.
I think this might be my favourite book that she’s written. I am impressed that she took on such a thorny, important issue and handled it with grace. I was interested to note on Goodreads that this book was tagged as Ruth Jefferson #1 so I’m curious to know if that was an error or if we will get more books featuring Ruth. I would very much be up for that.
If you read this book, make sure you read the Author’s Note as well. It really provides great context for the novel and how Picoult came to write it.
Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book.