“Is it worth being able to say what you need to say, if it means you land in prison?”
Small Great Things is a courageous novel, one that will excite a fair amount of controversy, and it’s one that needed to be written; it’s the most important novel released this year. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for my honest review. This book will be available to the public October 11, and you should read it.
Picoult’s readers will recognize the familiar format presented here, the alternating points of view of the novel’s main characters. Foremost is Ruth Jefferson, a middle aged labor and delivery nurse at Mercy Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Ruth is African-American. She’s making the rounds, doing a fairly perfunctory newborn check when Turk, the father of little Davis Bauer orders her out of the room. He wants to see her supervisor; he wants a note on his son’s chart that no Black person may touch his child. Turk is a white supremacist; he has the Confederate flag tattooed on his arm. The chart is flagged to indicate that no Black medical personnel—which in this hospital and on this ward means Ruth, since she’s the only African-American there—may touch or care for Davis Bauer.
She is told it’s for her own protection too.
But an emergency unfolds, and just as in real life, the hospital is understaffed. There are a limited number of nurses that can take care of emergencies, and when the rotation is full, the only person to keep an eye on Davis following his circumcision is Ruth. The nurse that had been attending him swears she’ll be back in just a few minutes. After all, what could go wrong?
What could go wrong does go wrong, as bad as it gets: Davis dies, and Ruth is blamed. She is suspended not only from the hospital but from nursing, and ultimately, when the hospital hears from the Bauers’ attorney, the administration decides to toss Ruth under the bus. She is arrested and charged with murder.
I have to say here that those that have big ugly reactions to triggers may not be able to read this thing. The language is harsh. There are dead babies in multiple places; if you or someone close to you has lost a baby, decide whether you can go here. There are lots of vicious racist and sexist terms tossed about, not carelessly or as a shortcut to establishing that someone is a bad guy, but because there’s no authentic way to voice a white supremacist character without using them. And I am frankly uncomfortable hearing Turk’s voice, and even more so with the amount of care Picoult uses to develop this character. It makes the book much more powerful, and those that wonder just what in hell makes someone turn out this way can watch it unfold. Is her depiction realistic? I have no clue. However, I can say I believe she has done due diligence with research, and it can’t have been easy.
Until now we have heard alternating voices, those of Ruth and Turk.Once Ruth is in trouble, we add a third character, that of Kennedy McQuarrie, the clueless attorney who sits down with Ruth and explains to her that she doesn’t see race. And ultimately the struggle isn’t about getting Ruth out of jeopardy and back to her job; it’s about how to do that.
Because Ruth, who has been more than tolerant around well intentioned Caucasian people that say offensive things without any idea how terrible they sound, has had enough. She went through Cornell University, but first she had to endure the hallway whispers that she only got in because she was Black. She speaks Standard English, and is fed up to here with being told she is too White. And she was paying close attention when Trayvon’s murderer walked away free; she doesn’t want her son to be the next young man in a hoody sweatshirt shot by cops terrified not of weapons or behavior, but of skin color.
So Ruth wants to go to court and she wants to talk about race. But Kennedy tells her that this is a losing strategy; only by sticking closely to the procedural aspects of the case will Ruth be able to reclaim her life. And Ruth is having none of it.
The people that really need to read this book are those that really think “all lives matter” is an encompassing slogan. I fear many of them will be too afraid of this story to go there. Likely those of us that understand that this slogan is a veiled way to say that only White lives matter are the ones that will be drawn into this story.
The ending felt contrived to me, but the rest of this novel is so well done that I’m not going to split hairs here.
I was somewhat taken aback by the author’s note suggesting that Caucasian readers should take the message back to “other White people”, in our “own” communities. And I do understand that much of the USA is still segregated, but I have been the only Caucasian in my house for a lot of years, and I wasn’t sure quite what to do with her assumption, particularly given that the theme of this story could very well be that nobody has the right to assume things about a person based on that person’s race or ethnicity. But I can live with it, because the story itself is much more powerful than the notes at the end, and I understand that her ultimate message to White folks is that we must not try to be “white knights” that rush in and take over the struggle, but rather allies that follow and support.
I wish it could be required reading for everyone…especially for those that say they don’t see race.