Leave it to Jodi Picoult to tackle the explosive subject of race — as she does in SMALL GREAT THINGS — with her signature stroke of compassion. In alternating chapters, Picoult uses those lovely, fluid sentences of hers to limn her characters and bring them to life. She even manages, surprisingly, to give a white supremacist his due.
The story opens with Ruth Jefferson, a skilled labor and delivery nurse. By page 21, the plot’s set-up is delivered (so to speak)—a baby boy has been born, and as Ruth tends to him, the father tells the head nurse that he doesn’t want Ruth or “anyone who looks like her touching my son.” Ruth is black; the parents are white. As he issues his demand, Turk Bauer, the father, crosses his arms and pushes up his shirt sleeves to reveal a confederate flag tattoo.
A series of events collide, and Ruth finds herself alone in the nursery with the baby, who goes into cardiac arrest. In a vivid, heart-wrenching scene, the baby dies, and Ruth is later charged with murder. Enter Kennedy McQuarrie, the white, female public defender assigned to Ruth’s case. Highly sympathetic to Ruth, Kennedy is keen on winning the case—and she’s equally keen on burnishing her own reputation.
In the run-up to the trial, and during the trial itself, these three characters—Ruth, Turk, and Kennedy—undergo personal journeys that lead each to a deeper understanding of who they are. This is a powerful, engaging story, a real page-turner.
That being said, the novel has its faults. Lengthy stretches feel didactic, and a deus ex machina tossed in toward the end—while shocking, even fun—feels like a cop-out. The ending itself is rushed, with the final chapter a bit too tidy. Those are structural weaknesses, but for me the more troubling aspect is the book’s premise. While it makes for a dramatic story, the legal case against Ruth is unrealistic and contrived.
Given the lack of hard evidence (and the troubling ambiguity of what little there is), it is difficult to imagine a real prosecutor ever pursuing such a case, let alone a judge who would not have dismissed it in preliminary judgment. Nor do Ruth’s colleagues seem plausible—what possible reason would any one of them have to testify against someone they’ve known and liked for years and whose skills they deeply respect?
But then I am white, and, as Picoult goes to great pains to show in this book, white people have no idea what an easy world, comparatively, we live in. We take much for granted.
In her Author’s Note at the end, some of the finest writing in the book, Picoult reveals her own journey in writing about race, the research she conducted, and her fear that she lacks authenticity as a white person writing about the black experience.
Those end notes are almost worth the price of admission—reading of her trepidation, I came away in awe of Picoult’s compassion and humility. That she even attempted such a work as Small Great Things—and there is much that is good—is truly admirable.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.