In more than twenty novels, bestselling author Jodi Picoult has addressed school shootings, organ donation, suicide pacts, Asperger’s syndrome, the Holocaust, rape, and more. Her latest novel, Small Great Things, attempts to tackle racism in America.
As a young child, Ruth accompanies her mother to the big brownstone where she watches her care for the Hallowell family. One day, while playing in the brownstone, Ruth witnesses a miracle. Her mother helps Ms. Mina deliver her baby, and “there was a moment- one heartbeat, one breath- where all the differences in schooling and money in skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman helping another.”
Thirty-nine years later, Ruth is still waiting to see that miracle again. A graduate of Yale Nursing School, Ruth has worked in labor and delivery at Connecticut Hospital for more than twenty years. Her son, Edison, is her greatest pride: a National Merit Scholar, third in his class, and going to college. Ruth works hard to support him and avoids disrupting the status quo, even if it means disregarding the patient who assumes Ruth’s younger white coworker is her superior or the way the white woman on the bus holds her purse a little tighter as she walks by.
Enter Turk and Brit Bauer, married two years and expecting their first child. They are young, in love, and white supremacists firmly committed to ‘the cause.’ A drunk African American killed Turk’s brother in an accident, and Brit’s father is a legendary member of the ‘Old Guard.’ Turk and his father-in-law run Lone Wolf, an online gathering place and message board that allows the movement to flourish underground.
The Bauer’s lives collide with Ruth’s in the delivery room when Turk rolls up his sleeves, displaying a Confederate flag, and refuses to allow Ruth to treat his newborn son. The hospital agrees to his request, and Ruth is ordered not to touch the baby. The next day, unforeseen circumstances arise, and Ruth is left alone in the room with him. The baby goes into cardiac arrest, Ruth hesitates, torn between orders and duty, and he dies.
With an imminent murder trial, Ruth turns to Kennedy McQuarrie, a well-meaning white public defender. Despite Kennedy’s desire to help Ruth and Ruth’s desire to be helped, they must first overcome their differences and confront their own implicit biases. In a scene from one of their first meetings, Kennedy asks, “ ‘do you prefer the term Black or African American or people of color?’
What I prefer, I think, is Ruth. But I swallow my response and say, ‘People of color.’ ”
Punctuated by scenes from the world of a white supremacist, with elements such as birthday parties with African American piñatas, anti-Holocaust propaganda, and violent assaults on gay bars, Picoult weaves a powerful story that highlights the subtleties of a pervasively racist society: from the Disney films with whitewashed heroes that Kennedy watches with her four-year old daughter and the Macy’s security guard that tracks Ruth’s movements to the jury member who claims to treat everyone equally, but believes African American children have to be disciplined more frequently. Jodi Picoult recognizes her position as a white woman writing about racism and restricts herself to areas within her understanding, avoiding the self-important ‘preaching to the choir’ manner of other white writers of racism. Small Great Things is both an exploration and a call for deep personal reflection on one’s participation in and perpetuation of the status quo.
To fully depict it, Picoult’s utilizes her signature style of alternating narratives to cover every side of each interaction, although she occasionally stumbles under the burden of too many perspectives with too many backstories. Written from the perspective of Ruth, Turk, and Kennedy, Small Great Things attempts to cover each of their public and private
lives, past and present. While Picoult inadequately explores Kennedy’s childhood through only a few sporadic mother-daughter conversations, Turk’s backstory is a triumph. By depicting abuse and initiation, Picoult manages the impossible: the portrayal of white supremacism in a manner that seeks to understand rather than simply criticize. While her
alternating narratives may jumble at times, the expected Picoult twist at the end cannot be foreseen and does not disappoint.
All in all, Small Great Things is not a grand scale solution to racism, but true to its name, a small thing done in a great way.