“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
It was this quote that inspired the title of Jodi Picoult’s latest offering Small Great Things. Picoult always knew that she wanted to write a book on pervasive racism (she mentions this in the afterword and gave this interview with NPR), but she says that a constant stream of writer’s block forced her to put the project aside. Eventually she came across a news article about a black nurse in Flint, Michigan who was fired for negligence after being told not to go near a baby (by a white person who did not want a black nurse administering to their child) and so Small Great Things was born.
In true Picoult fashion, this is a hard-hitting, difficult read at times and it’s also completely topical (think Donald Trump and Brexit).
The story centres on an African American labor and delivery nurse, Ruth, who’s been an employee of the same hospital for 20 years. One day she checks in on Turk and Britt’s newborn baby, Davis. After finishing her routine checks, she turns to see that Davis’ parents have very strained faces. Turk steps forward and asks her to step away from the baby and asks for her manager. The outcome: a post-it note on the baby’s file saying “No African American staff are to help with this infant.” Turk and Britt we discover, are both white supremacists.
Ruth obeys her superior’s orders, but is quietly enraged by them. Then, whilst she is the only nurse on duty, complications occur and baby Davis dies on Ruth’s watch. Turk and Britt are distraught and threaten to sue the hospital. The hospital shifts the blame to Ruth who is suspended from her job and arrested.
Enter defense attorney Kennedy. After landing Ruth’s case, the story takes off. It’s told from Ruth, Turk and Kennedy’s points of view. With each chapter, we develop a stronger insight into each of their lives and ideologies.
Through Ruth we see how hard it is to be a black woman in a society that is dominated by white people, where almost everything is catered to white people and, most importantly, we see how often she is given a second glance because of the color of her skin.
And then we have Turk. Throughout his chapters, we delve deep into the workings of White Power groups, gatherings, festivals and attacks. Yet surprisingly, Turk isn’t depicted solely as a monster. I didn’t respect his actions, but I understood his grief at the loss of his child.
And then there’s Kennedy. As Ruth’s defense attorney, she passionately works on behalf of justice. She is white and stands in defense of those who have been wronged, no matter the color of their skin. However she herself is unaware of her privilege or her own bias.
Picoult tightly weaves the stories of these three characters together. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. It punched me right in the throat and left me teary-eyed and open-mouthed.
Sure, I have studied history. I know the history of race relations and slavery, but I genuinely believed that most overt acts of inequality have been resolved. I think this is where my utter “whiteness” comes through. This novel opened my eyes to the subtle racism that I do not encounter everyday and therefore, naively, rarely notice is taking place.
I am a white woman living in New Zealand where racial relations have always been uneasy. During the late 1700’s white European colonists arrived, the British Crown claimed the Islands as their own, they made very shoddy deals with the local Maori, conned them out their land and forever altered their cultural foundation. This remains a deeply contentious issue today, with good reason. However it’s often considered that historical racism persists rather than current social racism.
That is exactly Jodi Picoult’s point in Small Great Things. In the United States, yes, racial equality was fought for and won (sort of) in the 1960’s but, social racism is still very much prevalent, and it is this problem that Picoult successfully tackles.
It’s Kennedy’s closing speech that really knocked my socks off.
“Finish this sentence; I am… Maybe you’d answer shy. Or blond. Friendly. Nervous, intelligent, Irish. But the majority of you wouldn’t say white. Why not? Because it is a given. It’s an identity that is taken for granted.”
Kennedy’s speech is powerful, moving and was the boot up the butt that made me truly realise just how important this book is.
As Ruth says, “Slavery is everybody’s history.”
Sometimes an author’s words leave the pages and follow you around. And that’s definitely the case with this book. Picoult created a little voice that kept asking me over and over to wipe the naivety from my eyes and see the world for what it really was. And do you know what? It worked.