Jodi Picoult’s credentials as a best-selling novelist are well deserved, so I’m not sure how I missed seeing small great things when it first came out last fall. (Probably because I was knee-deep in Black Friday madness when we were all deal blogging — But that’s the beauty of the library: There’s always something new to read in any season, right?)
Anyway, I couldn’t put this one down! Picoult’s small great things is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time (and as you may have noticed, I tend to read a lot of books). The novel tells the story of Ruth Jefferson, an African-American labor and delivery nurse who’s spent 20 years working at a hospital in Connecticut. She’s barred from caring for a newborn infant by his white supremacist parents, Turk and Brittany Bauer — but then finds herself in an untenable situation when the baby goes into cardiac distress while she’s the only person in the room. Should she heed the hot pink “No African American Personnel to Care for This Patient” Post-it note on the baby’s chart, or try to save him? Ruth hesitates briefly… and the novel unfolds from there.
This isn’t an easy read
Be forewarned that small great things is a gripping book, but not a comfortable read; it confronts issues of race, privilege, prejudice, and power from multiple perspectives, and forces both its characters and its reader to acknowledge implicit biases. This is of course a particularly interesting time in which to explore these issues, but the novel would have been as timely an addition to our cultural conversation two, or five, or ten years ago as it is today.
As I was finishing up small great things, I was wondering about the ability of Picoult, as a white woman, to do justice to Ruth’s point of view and experiences. So, I was glad to see her address the issue in an Author’s Note at the end of the book and in interviews:
I’d wanted to write about racism. I’ve wanted to do that for a very long time. Twenty years ago, I started a book after reading a news story about an African-American undercover cop who was shot four times in the back on the subway by his white colleagues. And I started that book, and I tried very hard to write it, and ultimately I failed. I just couldn’t write an authentic story. And I really second-guessed myself. I thought, you know, do I even have the right to write this story? I am a white woman. I have not lived this life. This is not my story to tell.
Picoult then talks about seeing a news story about an African-American nurse barred from touching an infant she’d helped deliver by the baby’s white supremacist parents, and how that story spurred her to write small great things.
… it became a seed for me that grew, and I began to push the envelope a little bit, wondering what would happen if that nurse had been left alone with the baby? What would happen if she had to make a decision that could result on her going to trial and being defended by a white public defender who, like me and like many people I know, would never consider herself to be a racist? And I began to think about trying to tell the story from three different points of view – the African-American nurse, the white public defender and the skinhead father – as they all confronted their beliefs about power and privilege and race.
Picoult does a masterful job of helping us understand these different characters’ points of view, providing plenty to think and talk about. There’s quite a lot packed into small great things, and this is one I’ll probably go back and read again after I’ve had some time to digest. small great things would also make a fantastic book club pick, providing plenty of fodder for discussion. You can find out more about the book, download an excerpt, and pick up a discussion guide here.
Make a point of reading small great things this summer
The title of the book comes from a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” At one point Ruth remembers her mother referring to his words when she first started nursing school, telling her “You’re destined to do small great things” — and the theme recurs throughout, as the characters grow, develop, and do “small great things” in their own way. It’s worth taking some time this summer to read small great things, and to reflect on what the title and the book mean to you.
What are you reading this week?
What have you been reading lately? Tell us about it! ? And, you can browse all the What’s Rachel Reading? book reviews here.