Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult: A review

Kudos to Jodi Picoult for having the courage to write about racism in America. And indeed it must have taken quite a bit of nerve for a middle-aged white woman in a position of privilege to take on the task of telling the story, speaking in the voice, of an African-American woman who is unjustly accused of a heinous crime and tried for that crime. Her effort is flawed but still admirable.

Picoult takes the title of her book from a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way."  
One could argue that this book is a small thing done in a greater cause; the cause of starting a conversation about racism and its self-defeating stupidity. The writer's main audience is most likely white, and her earnest aim is to reach that population and make them think about the challenges that people of color face every day in their lives, challenges which we as white people can never truly comprehend, because, frankly, whatever our status, we come from a position of privilege. 

Picoult's central character is Ruth Jefferson, a black woman with a teenage son. She has been a labor and delivery nurse for more than 20 years and she is very good at her job. There has never been a complaint against her in all those 20+ plus.

Then one day into Ruth's professional life come Turk and Brittany Bauer, rabid white supremacists. Brittany is on her maternity ward for the delivery of her first child. The child, whom they name Davis after Jefferson Davis, first and only president of the Confederate States of America, is born, with a white labor and delivery nurse in attendance. That nurse goes off duty and Ruth is assigned to the case.

When she goes to the room to do the routine check of a newborn baby, she finds that the child has a heart murmur but that is not considered serious. What is serious is the parents' reaction to her. They are shocked and angry. Turk demands to speak to the nursing supervisor and tells her that no African-American personnel are to be allowed to touch his child. The supervisor complies with his demand. Ruth is indignant at this unjust discrimination.

As luck would have it, there comes a time a couple of days later when the short-handed staff of the hospital are all involved in handling emergencies and only Ruth is left to watch over Davis who has just undergone a circumcision. In those few minutes when only Ruth is present, the child goes into distress and, ultimately, in spite of the best efforts of the staff, he dies.

The parents blame Ruth for Davis' death and pressure the police to bring charges against her. The police agree that there is enough evidence to charge her with murder and a squad of police show up at her house at 3:00 AM one day, batter down her door when she doesn't immediately answer their pounding on it (because she is asleep) and cart her away to jail wearing a nightgown and slippers after slamming her teenage son to the floor when he tried to intervene.

No doubt many who have suffered similar treatment could identify with this scene.

Then we meet Kennedy McQuarrie, a white woman, who is a public defender who takes on Ruth's case. The story is told through the eyes and voices of the three main characters: Ruth Jefferson, Turk Bauer, and Kennedy McQuarrie.

I felt that Picoult's depiction of Turk Bauer was her most successful. Ruth and her son were both just a little too perfect and Kennedy and her family were stereotypical well-meaning white folks who really didn't have a clue what people of color have to face every day of their lives. A little more nuanced shading of characters would have made the story more meaningful for me.

And then there is that great surprise twist at the end of Ruth's trial, a twist which wasn't really a surprise for me because I picked up on the clue when it was offered earlier in the book, as writers who play fair must do. The surprise was, frankly, a bit too much, a bridge too far, and it detracted from the impact of the story for me.

Still, Picoult should be commended for this attempt. Her author's note at the end, explaining all the research she did and why she felt compelled to write about the subject was some of the best writing in the book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars     


  1. I've seen this book make the rounds in the blogosphere but I didn't know until now what it was about. Sounds timely, since racism hasn't never really gone away.

    1. Picoult's working hypothesis seems to be that we are all racists of one stripe or another and, in her book, she shows how all her characters, even those who think they are not prejudiced, are bound by their biases.

  2. I agree that she takes on a subject well worth writing about. But those stock characters and the "surprise" twist at the end are the staples of Jodi Picoult that made me stop reading her. However, I always enjoy reading your reviews!

    1. This is the first book of hers that I've read. I've always avoided her because I thought she wouldn't be to my taste. I decided to give her a try after reading a review of the book by Roxanne Gay. I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure I'll be seeking out more of her work.


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