“There is a fire raging, and we have two choices: we can turn our backs, or we can try to fight it.”
Welcome to my review of Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.
Throughout the tale we have three narrators: Ruth a black nurse; Turk a bereaved father and Kennedy, a lawyer.
“Is stimulating the baby the same as resuscitating him? Is touching the baby technically caring for him? Could I lose my job over this?”
“I don’t have questions. I know what happened. That black nurse killed my son. I saw her with my own eyes, beating at his chest.”
“Racism isn’t just about hate. We all have biases, even if we don’t think we do. It’s because racism is also about who has power…and who has access to it.”
Stage One – Early Labour
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” – Benjamin Franklin
At the end of the first chapter we see almost a preview of what’s to come. After Ruth tells us her story, of her mother being a maid to a wealthy white family who by all accounts treated her well, and seeing a child born – hope is the message.
“…there was a moment -one heartbeat, one breath – where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another. That miracle, I’ve spent thirty-nine years waiting to see again.”
Out all of that, the miracle she chooses to refer to is not the miracle of bringing new life into the world, but of the already existing and living side by side with no one person better than another.
Stage One – Active Labor
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin.”
Ruth tells us about a remarkable experience about the most beautiful baby she witnessed being born.
A baby with no face, with deformities “incompatible with living.” We see her watch the Mother’s undying love and a Father in turmoil of watching his son die and his difficulty in dealing with this. We see one of the nurses and midwives most vital role in communicating, helping the Father deal with his grief and wave of emotions.
“…love has nothing to do with what you’re looking at and everything to do with who’s looking.”
“It just goes to show you: every baby is born beautiful. It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.”
Possibly referring to the student nurse telling her that she was ‘sorry’ because it was a ‘monster.’ I honestly hope this doesn’t happen in real life but I have no doubt something along those lines does and it’s distressing. I can’t help but wonder if that baby belonged to that student nurse, whether her thoughts of it being a monster would still stand?
“For a boy like Edison to be so successful…”
“A boy like Edison. I know what she is saying even if she’s careful not to spell it out…Comments like this feel like paper cuts…I try to ignore the sting.
Even here we see the struggle Ruth has…even with friends and colleagues she has known for 10 years still don’t realise what they’re saying and how hurtful it can be. We see the starting of prejudice and racism, key features throughout this book too. The fact that Marie is surprised that Edison is on the honours list…not because he shouldn’t be there but because he’s black.
We then meet Turk. A skinhead. An outright racist. A white supremacist.
“Nerves look different on fathers. They get combative, sometimes. As if they could bluster away whatever’s wrong.”
This just reiterated this stereotype as seem to have of the male population…that they don’t cry or can’t have feelings. That they must be ‘macho’ and deal with whatever comes their way.
But nothing is ever that simple and slowly but surely, the whispers between mother and father turn silent and ominous.
“For a moment, I honestly don’t understand. And then it hits me with the force of a blow: they don’t have a problem with what I’ve done.
Just with who I am.”
Ruth has been removed from the care of Turks baby. A bright pink post it note tells everyone all they need to know…
“NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT.”
And this is where we we begin to delve deeper, to learn of the consequences of this for both Turk and for Ruth. Unfortunately I know exactly how it feels to be criticised and demeaned for just being yourself, something you cannot change: for me it was my personality and with Ruth here, it’s the colour of her skin.
This is where we start a new narrator, Turk.
With a confederate flag tattooed on his arm and a swastika on his head, Turk and Brit (his wife and mother of the child), aren’t afraid to hide who they are. In fact, they’re almost proud of it.
“The first nigger I ever met killed my brother.”
This is the first sentence in Turks chapter. And in that instant that you read that sentence, you know the reason why. The trigger. And as Turks chapters continue, the foreboding that something bigger is going to happen is ominous.
“I get it, boy, you’re going to war.”
Ruth shares her experience with another patient, first time parents. The wife reveals her secrets to Ruth and in that moment, Ruth tells her to believe.
“Is it better not knowing the ugly truth, and pretending it doesn’t exist? Or is it better to confront it, even though that knowledge may be a weight you carry around forever?”
I love the quote above. The simplicity in what it says. Knowing we all feel and think this at some point or another.
The chapters go back and forth between Turk and Ruth until the unthinkable happens. Ruth finds herself alone with Turks child…and he’s deteriorating fast. But having been removed from his care, what can she do? She can’t touch him.
“What am I supposed to do? What am I not supposed to do?”
Luckily, more colleagues arrive and Ruth, under the direction of her superiors, starts chest compressions. Unfortunately, Turk and Brit witness this and to make matters worse…their baby loses his fight and passes away.
We see a different side to Turk here, a more emotional side and as Brit leaves the hospital, Turk shows us he has a heart…maybe not in the right place but he has a heart and a worry. Turk shows us he’s scared.
“What if the worst thing isn’t that I’ve lost my child? What if it’s that I’ve also lost my wife?”
Turk is hellbent in revenge, he consults the hospital lawyer who persuades him to sue Ruth rather than the whole hospital.
Introducing Kennedy. The lawyer, a female lawyer. The chapter serves as more of an introduction to her and her background, her family life and her job. We learn she is a determined woman with knowledge on how to win a case but has her family at th centre of her life and will always make time for them.
Back to Ruth and soon enough, her world is brought crashing down around her…her nursing license has been revoked. She has been suspended. Unable to work. What’s worse, her and her son have been arrested at her home. Why? Ruth’s been accused of murder. It’s one word against another and Ruth begins to realise this world hasn’t changed all that much…whites vs blacks. No matter what she says, she won’t win on her own.
At this point, as a reader, I want to cry for Ruth. She doesn’t deserve this. As a registered veterinary nurse, I know what it means to be a nurse in any capacity with animals or humans and I can’t even begin to imagine having it all taken away from me and even less so imagine how difficult it must be to process being arrested for ultimately doing your job.
Stage One – Transition. “The piano keys are black and white but they sound like a million colours in your mind.” – María Cristina Mena.
The first chapter in this section is narrated by Kennedy. A white, female lawyer who never gets the bigger cases because she’s not male.
“It will go to someone in my office who has more experience than I do, or who plays golf with my boss, or who has a penis.”
The same goes for Ruth’s case. As a public defender, Kennedy knows she won’t stay on Ruth’s case but is determined to get her out of jail because as Ruth tells her tale, Kennedy believes her. Believes she has done no wrong and they are much the same.
“In that moment we’re not black and white, or attorney and accused. We’re not separated by what I know about the legal system and what she has yet to learn. We are just two mothers, sitting side by side.”
As Kennedy wakes up to see The Lion King being aired on the tv, she speaks to her husband of her day. They then use the Lion King to relate to the case. This changes things for Kennedy.
“Did you know that in The Lion King, the hyenas – the bad guys – all speak in either black or Latino slang? And that the little cubs are told not to go where the hyenas live?”
He looks at me amused.
“Do you realise that Scar, the villain, is darker than Mufasa?”
“Kennedy.” Micah puts his hands on my shoulders, leans down, and kisses me. “There is a slight chance you’re overthinking this.”
That’s the moment I know I’m going to move heaven and earth to be Ruth’s public defender.”
Kennedy slowly realises that somethings not adding up and the fact that she can’t seem to shake this case as she has done so with so many other previously, she’s determined to get this case for her own. Why is she being treated so unfairly? Why has she been singled out?
“There are two types of people who become public defenders: those who believe they can save the world, and those who know damn well they can’t…even when a client has done something unlawful. I can find sympathy. I can acknowledge a bad choice was made, but still believe in justice, as long as everyone has equal access to the system – which is exactly why I do what I do. But with Ruth, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up.”
When Ruth meets Kennedy to discuss the beginnings of her lawsuit, Ruth realises that she’s made a mistake.
“I realise I have made a grave mistake: I had assumed that justice was truly just, that jurors would assume I was innocent until proven guilty. But prejudice is exactly the opposite: judging before the evidence exists.
I don’t stand a chance.”
When Ruth meets Kennedy’s daughter Violet she has a flashback of starting at Dalton school as a child and had a stabbing pain in her gut as soon as she walked in, despite not having a fever she was allowed off school and went with her Mum to the Hallowells and sat in the study to recover. When Mr Hallowell enters, he tells her a story, of when he had the same pains.
“I happen to know exactly what’s ailing you, Ruth, because I caught that bug once too. It was just after I took over programming at the network. I had a fancy office and everyone was falling all over each other to try to make me happy, and you know what? I felt sick as a dog. I was sure that any minute everyone was going to look at me and realise I didn’t belong there.”
Ruth recalls how she was the only child with a bag lunch and how, although everyone recognised pictures of George Washington and Elvis Presley and knew who they were, she was the only one who recognised Rosa Parks, making Ruth feel both proud and embarrassed. Mr Hallowell continued…
“You are not an imposter, you are not there because of luck, or because you happened to be in the right place at the right moment, or because someone like me had connections. You are there because you are you, and that is a remarkable accomplishment in itself.”
This is abruptly followed by the stark discovery that Edison, the star pupil has been suspended for punching his best friend. Ruth realises her world and his are crumbling around them.
After his, when Kennedy and Ruth are discussing the medical records for the baby Davis, Ruth has an outburst shocking both herself and Kennedy.
“You told me this lawsuit isn’t about race. But that’s what started it…” – Ruth
“…I am not disagreeing with you. There are definite racial overtones in this case.” – Kennedy
At this point, you almost feel frustrated at Ruth. Here is a lawyer, offering Ruth the chance to fight her corner and persuade a jury not to let her go to jail and instead Ruth decides to ignore Kennedy. You can also understand Ruth’s frustrations, all these years she’s been trying to ignore the very white world around her, telling Edison his colour doesn’t matter. But the more the case goes on, the more she speaks to her sister, Wallace Mercy the tv preacher, her white friends and seeing Edison struggling, she thinks maybe it is her colour.
After their outburst, Ruth extends what Kennedy believe to be an olive branch and invites her shopping. Soon enough, while Ruth seemingly doesn’t bat an eyelid, all Kennedy can notice is the nerves of the staff around Ruth; then it dawns on Kennedy. Yes Ruth may have extended an olive branch but this was much more than that. Despite what Kennedy believed, racism subtle or not is still rife.
“That’s when I realise that Ruth didn’t want me to come here with her because she needed help picking out a present for her mother.
Ruth wanted me to come here so that I could understand what it was like to be her.
The manager hovering, in case of shoplifting.
The wariness of the cashier.
The fact that out of a dozen people leaving…Ruth was the only one whose bag was checked.”
Suddenly Kennedy can’t shake the feeling that maybe racism is playing a part in this case after all.
When it comes to choosing a jury, an extra hand is exactly what is required…it also helps if those hands were black. In step, Howard who we briefly met earlier in the book. As Kennedy’s co-counsel, they team up and try their best to get a fair and just jury.
Kennedy then meets Ivan, a neonatologist. With some medical insight, Kennedy now knows the meanings of the blood results for Davis. With some maybe’s thrown here and there and a potential cause of death despite best efforts to save him, Kennedy has important information in her grasp. But is it enough to help Ruth? We wait and see.
Stage Two – Pushing
“She wanted to get at the hate of them all, to pry at it and work at it until she found a little chink, and then pull out a pebble or a stone or a brick and then a part of the wall, and, once started, the whole edifice might roar down and be done away with.” – Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man
This section starts with Ruth, preparing for her trial, the day is finally upon her.
“We all do it, you know. Distract ourselves from noticing how time’s passing. We throw ourselves into our jobs. We focus on keeping the blight off our tomato plants. We fill up our gas tanks and top off our Metro cards and do the grocery shopping so that the weeks look the same on the surface…
How much time do I have left? How much can I fit into that small space?
Some of us let that realisation guide us, I guess…we try to pretend it’s not almost over.
But some of us just fill up our gas tanks and top off our Metro cards and do the grocery shopping, because if you only see the path that’s right ahead of you, you don’t obsess over when the cliff might drop off.
Some of us never learn.
Some of us learn earlier than others.”
Whilst Edison isn’t quite a man yet, he has grown and acted more elder than his years. But now on the morning of his mother’s trial, he shows us he’s still a child.
“I don’t want to go to the trial because I don’t think I can listen to what they say about you.”
Ruth then recalls the night before her trial when Kennedy and her family arrived at her home. When Ruth discovered that Davis Bauer had a life-threatening condition, a discovery which could her case tremendously in court, she burst into tears.
“I was crying because Kennedy had been right all along – it really didn’t matter if the nurse attending to Davis Bauer as black or white or purple. It didn’t matter if I tried to resuscitate that baby or not. None of it would have made a difference.”
As a registered veterinary nurse, this is one of the hardest things to realise and to come to terms with. That no matter what you did or didn’t do, your best and your efforts would have changed the outcome; you wouldn’t have made a difference. It’s heart wrenching and for me, totally relatable. I can see why Ruth cried.
Meanwhile Turk, who we haven’t heard from in a while, is struggling.
“I was going to war for my son, and nothing was going to stop me.
But, strangely, I have a sense that I’ve reached the combat zone and found it deserted.
I’m tired. I’m twenty-five years old and I have lived enough for ten men.”
But just as Turk is starting to lose hope, several white supremacists emerge, a steady stream closing ranks, giving Turk the fighting spirit he’d been lacking in this morning.
“They are Neo -Nazis who never decredited. They have been anonymous, hiding behind the screens of usernames, until now.
For my son, they’re willing to be outed once again.”
A white community and a black community, both fighting for one thing – justice.
It’s the first day in court for Ruths trial. While Odettte Lawson the prosecutor claims Ruth is a murderer …
“Ruth Jefferson’s behaviour was wanton, reckless and intentional. Ruth Jefferson is a murderer.”
Kennedy and the defence took a different stance, portraying Ruth for the person she is, a good wife, a good mother and a good nurse. A nurse who, when faced with an impossible decision tried to save this baby.
“It was Turk and Brittany Bauer, who, lost in grief and pain, wanted to find a scapegoat. If they could not have their son, alive and healthy, they wanted someone else to suffer. And so, they targeted Ruth Jefferson.” She looks at the jury. “There has already been one innocent victim. I urge you to prevent there being a second.”
While Ruth can only sit and watch as her former colleagues and fellow professionals take the stand, she notes how something perceived to be friendship is actually just convenience.
“If the past few months have taught me anything, it’s that friendship is a smoke screen. The people you think are solid turn out to be mirrors and light; and then you look down and realise there are others you took for granted, those who are your foundation.”
When the charge for murder has been dropped, Kennedy reveals she no longer thinks it a good idea for Ruth to take the stand. Ruth, feels betrayed. All this time she felt she was finally going to tell her side of the story, her piece and now that was being taken away from her again. And in that moment, Kennedy realises that Ruth doesn’t care about the verdict, she just wants to say her piece.
“That’s all she wants. To let people know she was treated unfairly because of her race, and for her reputation as a caregiver to remain in tact, even if it means it will be tarnished by a guilty verdict. “
Once the trial has reached its climax, the closing statements are read. For Kennedy, who walked through the black districts, went into a store where only black people go and feel watched and scrutinised. To see a black person walk in the other direction to her. Kennedy portrays another side to racism. Not the active racism so proudly displayed by Turk Bauer but passive racism.
“It’s noticing there’s only one person of colour in your office and not asking your boss why. It’s reading your kids fourth-grade curriculum and seeing that the only black history covered is slavery, and not questioning why. It’s defending a woman in court whose indictment directly resulted from her race…and glossing over that fact, like it hardly matters.”
Outside the courthouse, whilst the jurors are making their decision and deliberating, an unexpected event outside hits Turk and makes him question absolutely everything he’s ever known.
“How many exceptions do there have to be before you start to realise that maybe the truths you’ve been told aren’t actually true?”
“The truth is, if that baby were Davis, it wouldn’t matter that his skin is darker than mine. It would just matter that he is alive.”
“Maybe however much you’ve loved someone, that’s how much you can hate. It’s like a pocket turned inside out. It stands to reason that the opposite should be true, too.”
FINALLY, Ruth is free. That everything is now behind her. Racism was aired in the courthouse, by herself and by Kennedy. But now she is free.
“Freedom is the fragile neck of a daffodil, after the longest of winters. It’s the sound of your voice, without anyone drowning you out. It’s having the grace to say yes, and more important, the right to say no. At the heart of freedom, hope beats: a pulse of possibility…nothing has changed, and everything is different.”
Again, hope is the sound and the word echoing clearer than any other. With the elephant in the room addressed, it’s time to move forward and focus on what’s ahead.
SIX YEARS LATER
“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
This last chapter is narrated by Turk and actually I’m going to leave this chapter for you all to read and I hope you’ll be as pleasantly surprised by this as I was. It’ll leave a smile on your face for sure.
Jodi Picoult has written a spectacular novel to rival A Time to Kill. Also based loosely on a true story, her research into all sides of this is telling and remarkable. She takes a complicated, controversial social dilemma and reveals moral implication of a worrying situation, and the warmth and anxieties of those living through this nightmare. She shows us although we don’t think we are racist, that we don’t see colour, we also don’t see the comfortable white privileged lives sets them aside from those people of colour. She isn’t afraid to show that even white people, no matter how good our intentions are, can get it wrong.
This book is a serious, thought provoking yet heart wrenching novel. But it is also warm and a book you cannot put down. I certainly couldn’t. I loved this book from beginning to end and my only regret is how long it’s taken me to actually pick it up to read. Absolutely, 100% recommended read, 5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ stars and would read again. Definitely up there with my all time favourite reads.
Ps sorry for such a long review. I realise this is my longest and most in-depth review so far but then I believe this book thoroughly deserved it.
Have you read this review and now convinced you’re going to read it? Have you already read it?
Let me know what you think in the comments below. Alternatively, write me a review in the review section of my blog.
One last thing.
Small Great Things is about prejudice and power; it is about that which divides and unites us.
It is about opening your eyes.
Want to know what all the fuss is about? Follow the link below to purchase Small Great Things from Amazon.
Happy reading folks!
Until next time,