Book Review | Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

It’s the same as any other hectic night on the labor and delivery ward in a Connecticut hospital. But for experienced nurse Ruth Jefferson, it’s a night that she’ll never forget. Used to seeing patients from all walks of life, Ruth knows that the most important thing is for mothers to deliver safely with healthy babies. But mistakes happen.

The problem is, what happens when the mistake involves the baby of a white supremacist, and you’re an African-American?

Before Ruth knows what is happening, things begin to spiral out of control and the careful, quiet life she’d established for herself and her son begins to fall apart at the seams. Having spent a lifetime trying to keep under the radar – working hard, being successful, having a stable income – she now finds herself on trial, in a case where race is the elephant in the room. Glaringly obvious but forcibly unspoken.

“Any public defender who tells you justice is blind is telling you a big fat lie.”

The story is told from the point of view of Ruth, her public defender Kennedy, and the white supremacist Turk. It does not make for comfortable reading. We hear of Ruth’s daily microaggressions; despite being a respected professional, she’s followed around in supermarkets, patronised over her son doing well in a good school, assumed to be the student when the other person in the room is a white man. Kennedy, a well-meaning white woman who ‘doesn’t see race’ is forced to confront her prejudices head-on – when it finally becomes clear that the courtroom conversation cannot ignore race any longer. And Turk, the most terrifying of all – telling us about unshakable belief in the superiority of the ‘white race’, his horrifying attacks on those he believes to be less than human, the swastika tattoo on his skull. It’s deeply uncomfortable. But that’s the point.

“When you say race doesn’t matter all I hear is you dismissing what I’ve felt, what I’ve lived, what’ it’s like to be put down because of the colour of my skin.”

Given the landscape of race relations in America, there’s never been a more pertinent time to have this conversation. Picoult’s latest book is a testament to these troubled and frightening times. There’s been much made of her writing as a black woman, a lived experience she couldn’t possibly understand. Where are the shelves of bestselling books about women of colour written by women of colour? That said, a privileged white woman using her work to open up these discussions about race and justice – is at least using her platform for good.

“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

Picoult doesn’t shy away from thorny, polemical issues. It’s a difficult read in terms of content, alleviated by Picoult’s natural storytelling capacities, developed characters and pacy plot. It is undeniably heavy-handed and melodramatic at times, and falls back on clichés and conveniences to hammer home the message. It ticks all the boxes for a textbook Picoult novel, but what is also does is open up difficult conversations, challenges assumptions of the well-meaning but ignorant, and crafts a story that resonates and forces the reader to reflect on the state of contemporary society.