Book: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: 2016
Summary: Ruth Jefferson, a labor and delivery nurse with twenty years experience, is reassigned from a patient due to her race. Her boss, Marie, puts a note in the baby’s patient file, at the request of the white supremacist parents, “No African American personnel to care for this patient.”
Turk Bauer blamed the death of his brother on a black man, joined a hate group as a teenager, and beat up his own father outside of a gay bar. He married the daughter of a white supremacist leader and helped bring the movement into the 21st century with social media. He demands that Ruth be removed from her assignment to care for his wife and newborn son.
Kennedy McQuarrie is the female white lawyer who gets Ruth’s case after that newborn son dies in Ruth’s presence and confusing circumstances.
Thoughts: I blasted through this novel. Between streaming video and games on my phone, I’m not reading the way that I used to. I hardly recognize myself. It’s a relief and a pleasure when I encounter a novel that demands that I keep reading.
Many white people will find Small Great Things a helpful picture of what it looks like to wake up to race and racism in the United States. Kennedy McQuarrie’s journey is understandable, not too unpleasant, and shows a clear progression. I could quibble a bit where things are out of order from my journey. In one scene, Kennedy makes this observation about The Lion King:
Do you realize that Scar, the villain, is darker than Mufasa?
The next time we see her, she says to Ruth:
Frankly, I don’t even see color. I mean, the only race that matters is the human one right?
Maybe that’s how some people work. For me, I learned the problematic nature of claiming to be colorblind years ago. But, I still need help spotting examples of implicit bias in popular culture. Fortunately, I have lots of friends on Facebook who are much better at noticing them.
The Author’s Note in the back reflects more accurately than Kennedy’s story how the white people I know woke up to race and racism. Jodi Picoult read lots of books and engaged in uncomfortable conversations with women of color. That pretty much describes the experience of the white members of my book club for the last nine years.
Small Great Things was the December selection of the Community for Understanding and Hope Book Group, a book club that specializes in books on race in America.
While I can see how Small Great Things will be a useful introduction for many white people to a difficult issue, for the purposes of our book group, I think it’s way too easy on white people. White readers get to say, “I relate to the black nurse; I hate the white supremacist; and I can learn just like the lawyer.” In the end, we feel good about ourselves.
What’s missing is the reality that most of us aren’t like any of those three characters. We’re like Marie, the manager who put the note in the file. She was just trying to do her job. She worked in an environment where decisions have to be made quickly, where people rely on their training (but she was never trained about what to do in this situation), and where no one is rewarded for admitting to mistakes.
We aren’t all nurses, but most of us spend our time in and around institutions that were built before the Civil Rights era, when racism was baked into the bricks, and we still haven’t done the hard work of dismantling those structures. Even newer organizations are built on older models, witness the under-representation of women and many minorities in the tech industry.
Our impulses, in difficult circumstances, will always be to do our jobs because that’s what our culture values. When that conflicts with a greater good, we can’t count on our instincts to serve us well or on our institutions to back us up when we manage to do the right thing. That’s what I want to see addressed in novels. What does it look like when expectations make it easier for us to be unbiased than biased, when systems tilt toward equity, and when structures are built to be inclusive?
Appeal: This is my first Jodi Picoult novel, but I see the appeal! I’m pleased that such a popular author took on this topic that feels like the issue of our time.
Have you read this book? What did you think?