Happy New Year, everyone! I finished another book in the final hours of 2017 and I thought you’d want to know about it.
Small Great Things is Jodi Picoult’s latest novel (
at least I think it’s her latest novel and one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to stop second-guessing myself) and tells the story of an African-American nurse, Ruth, who is thrown into an impossible situation. While working on the maternity ward, she is taken off a case because she’s black. The parents of the newborn are white supremacists and refuse to allow Ruth handle their child. As fate would have it, the child goes into cardiac arrest and Ruth is the only one in the nursery. Should she help the baby because it is her duty as a nurse? Or should she carry out the parents’ wishes and her supervisor’s direct orders and not help? Her choiceless choice leads to an indictment and a trial in which she is charged with murder and negligent homicide.
In the way of most of Picoult’s novels, this story is told from several perspectives. Ruth, the nurse, reflects on her career, her family, and the discrimination she’s faced throughout her life. Kennedy, Ruth’s white public defender, slowly comes to terms with white privilege and passive racism. Turk, the white supremacist father, spews racist thoughts and anger for losing his son.
In most of Picoult’s novels, I think the multiple perspective writing really works. But I felt that this story focused too much on the white narrative. This book, at least for me, is ultimately about the discrimination and racism people of color face on a day-to-day basis in America. Wouldn’t that story be better told by the characters of color? For instance there are five other black characters whose voice could have been used. There was Odette, the state prosecutor; Edison, Ruth’s 17-year-old son; Adisa, Ruth’s sister; Howard, the young second-chair on the defense side; and Wallace Mercy, a social justice advocate and pastor.
As Picoult tried to highlight white privilege and the ways in which whites benefit from racism, she also took agency and voice away from her characters of color. Was it intentional or malicious? No. Picoult wrote this novel in response to the police brutality against the African American community and clearly stated in her author’s note that she cannot speak for African Americans. However, I think she could have addressed racism by using the voices of her black characters instead of focusing on an idealistic lawyer and a skinhead.
Small Great Things. Jodi Picoult. Ballantine Books, 2016.