Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Wow. This book was…incredible. Here’s the blurb:

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 thought it was really smart and really ballsy the way Picoult chose to write through the perspective of the black nurse, the white supremacist, and the white attorney defending the nurse. Ruth was the perfect example of why “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t shield you from racism. Reading Turk’s perspective was difficult; it’s hard to imagine this enormous underground network who actually feels that anyone but white, straight men are inferior, that in fact they should be wiped off the face of the earth. This is the blatant racism, even if the swastika tattoo is hidden under a hat, that we think of when we say we aren’t racist.

I think I got the most out of Kennedy’s perspective. She, like me, like most of us, are not racist in the way that Turk is. She’s even a public defender who works for mostly African American clients, and calls her southern, conservative mother out on her racist lights. But though her work with Ruth, she’s forced to examine her own biases and privileges. She realizes how she and all white people have benefited from systemic racism, and how the refusal to acknowledge these advantages only perpetuates this racist system.

This is certainly not a comfortable read, which is why I think it’s so important to. We are taught not to talk about race, we like to think racism doesn’t exist, and certainly not within ourselves. But the simple fact is, ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away, and we all have to be aware of and work on our own biases is anything is EVER going to get better.

This is one of only a few books I wish I had written. I’m sure many people take issue with it – from people of color upset that Picoult co-opted the POC experience to well-intentioned white people who aren’t willing to examine their privilege. I can understand those points. But I simply can’t help myself – it’s a hell of a book and an engrossing read. The only thing I did not like was the “twist” at the end. It wasn’t that I hated it, I just felt like it wasn’t necessary to the story, and it gave a way too oversimplified reason for one of the character’s racism.

Five stars.

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