How do you go about reviewing a book so important and so carefully written without ruining the effect it has on the reader? I know I have to do it, because I feel it should be required reading for everyone on what has become a very difficult subject. This book affected me deeply. I was taken by surprise of the impact it had on me – and my reading group. Yes, it was uncomfortable discussing but after reading the book you’ll see that you’re willing to talk about it even if that means being vulnerable.
In her book, Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult tells the story of Ruth, an African American labor and delivery nurse who was prohibited from caring for a white baby, but later charged with a crime when the baby goes into cardiac arrest while Ruth is alone in the nursery. The parents of the baby are white supremacists who will stop at nothing to punish Ruth simply because she is black. When Kennedy, a white public defender, is assigned Ruth’s case, she insists that race should not be used as a defense strategy, even though it is obviously a racial issue. We are taken through Ruth’s case as she struggles to understand why, while also trying to maintain some normalcy in raising her teenage son. As you can imagine, it isn’t easy.
I thought this was an interesting plot. Picoult said about the book, “When white authors talk about racism in fiction, it is usually historical.” This is set in current day and is inspired by a true story (though it doesn’t quite develop the same outcome.) The story is told in alternating narrators – Ruth, Kennedy, and the white supremacist father. Each chapter gives you a glimpse at the “other side” so you almost get a cinematic feel. I could picture each scene vividly as I was reading each character’s commentary about major moments in the story. The courtroom scenes are so intense that you can feel the tension of the people in the room. The chapters narrated by Turk, the skinhead, are definitely the hardest to read. I was sickened by the story of how he came to be the new leader of their “movement” and all the ways he recruited and planned for what he called a racial holy war. To think that this is still happening in 2017 is beyond my comprehension. As you can imagine, this case makes headlines and creates a major stir in their community. You’ll recognize some “familiar” characters based on real-life figures in the media today. All of this makes the experience so realistic that sometimes you forget it’s fiction.
The overarching theme throughout the book is each character’s transformation in how they think about race. I, too, learned a lot about my own biases. I consider myself to be a progressive thinker; I would never call myself racist! After reading this, I realized that white people aren’t aware of all the forms of racial discrimination because we are conditioned to a life full of advantages. We are perpetuating racism by not acknowledging that we are given advantages like housing, jobs, criminal justice, and other benefits by virtue of our skin color. I hadn’t looked at it that way but it is actually a good point. While we can’t change the fact that we were born white, we can use our privilege for good. We can educate ourselves and acknowledge the impact race has on equality. This is the perfect book to start the conversation.
The title of the book was taken from a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” As Picoult mentions in the note at the end of the book, it is through small acts that racism is both perpetuated and partially dismantled. All of the characters in the book do a small thing with great and lasting repercussions. Not to give anything away, but there are multiple twists that you won’t see coming – even up to the last page!
I would recommend this book to other reading groups or book clubs. It lends for lots of good discussion, not just for exploring racism, but also parental love, loss, and the importance of family.
Goodreads rating: 5 out of 5 stars
We discussed this book with the following pairings:
Cabernet Sauvignon Jelly with Goat Cheese on crackers
Sweet Blackberry table wine