Release date: October 11th, 2016
My rating: 5/5 Stars.
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.
Generally, I’m not particularly attracted to fiction that doesn’t belong to the categories of thriller, horror, fantasy, crime, detective and the like. When I first came across this book on Goodreads before it was released, I was a bit hesitant whether I should add it to my already-bloated to-read shelf. I started reading it without any clue what I should expect.
I was blown away.
Within the first two pages of the book, I already fell in love with the main character, Ruth Jefferson, and I’m sure you will too. The book begins with a powerful and touching incident of her persuading a father to hold and love his newborn who suffers from facial deformity and will hence die very soon. While the mother holds the baby dearly and whispers his name, the father is disgusted by the baby’s deformity and doesn’t even want to accept him as his son, or as a living human being, as he refers to him as a “thing.” It’s here we first witness how fantastic Ruth is as a nurse, and how much love she has in her heart. When the father finally breaks down and holds his son with tears, it’s a moment of sublimity. I got goose bumps, and tears swelled in my eyes.
Why does Ruth care so much that the father confront his son? It’s because, she says, “If this man didn’t acknowledge that something truly horrible had happened— or worse, if he kept pretending for the rest of his life that it never had— a hole would open up inside him. Tiny at first, that pit would wear away, bigger and bigger, until one day when he wasn’t expecting it he would realize he was completely hollow.” This mentality of hers subtly sets the most important foundation of Ruth’s persistent fight against Turk Bauer in court.
It is an outstandingly impressive beginning with excellent characterization. I’m not a mother, not even a woman, but the emotions of this couple jumped out of the paper and connected to my heart, making me feel deeply for the baby and the parents.
However, as great and loving as Ruth is, she’s different than most of her colleagues—she’s black. And that becomes a problem to the Bauers, two white supremacists who don’t want Ruth to touch their baby. Their request is granted by the supervisor, leaving Ruth upset. But Ruth is called to monitor the baby while the other nurses attend to an emergency. While Ruth is on duty, the baby dies. The Bauers, distressed and angry, decide to sue Ruth for murder.
The story is formed on the values of the three main characters: Ruth Jefferson, Kennedy McQuarrie, and Turk Bauer. Through the point of view of each character, we get to know their backgrounds, lives, and philosophies. These values clash, creating a court case that represents racism and anti-racism in a unique way.
I find the relationship between Kennedy and Ruth most interesting. Kennedy is Ruth’s public defender and also a mother like Ruth, but she’s white; so is her whole family. She always claims that she’s not racist and doesn’t see colour; she’s very sure of this because she has defended for a lot of black people in court. She’s also highly against speaking about race in court, because it won’t do any good to Ruth’s appeal for acquittal. Whereas, Ruth doesn’t think so. Instead, she believes that there is something more important than her freedom and her son. After a few incidents, Kennedy finally realizes that she is automatically privileged because she’s white, and that she’s subject to passive racism—defending a black woman in court knowing that racism is what brought her to court, yet only glossing over such a fact.
Another thing I want to praise Picoult is how all three characters have a family and care about their kids. It puts them on the same page. You know that Turk is racist and rude, but you also know that he loves his short-lived son. He cares about his wife and family, and he grieves for his son deeply. I hated the Bauers at first, but my feelings toward them became much more complicated when Turk tries to save his son while the doctor and nurses give up because there is no hope. Brittney, the mother, becomes emotionally unstable after the tragedy. When I pictured the scene in my head, I didn’t see a villain; I saw a desperate father refusing to believe that his newborn is already dead, and becomes the only the only person in the room still trying to save the baby. How can I hate him?
As a person of colour (East Asian) living in a white country, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t self-conscious of my race at times. For example, I live off audio engineering, which is a 100% white-dominated profession. Because of this, I didn’t feel comfortable showing my last name, Zhan, which screams Chinese, in my studio’s name: instead of “James Zhan Productions,” I used “James Z. Productions.” People tell me that it’s unnecessary, and that it’s my works that matter. However, if I was competing with a white person, whose mixes are as good as mine, who will the client pick? It’s not a question that you can just answer right away. And yes, in the end they will know that I’m not white, but usually that’s when they have already heard my works. It’s like everybody says you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but at the end of the day, how you look sets the initial impression on others.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is an amazing book that uses courtroom drama to unveil hidden aspects of racism. Picoult handles the racism theme in the book very well, as it is an extremely sensitive subject. The book doesn’t lean towards either side, but rather, it gives good reasons for each. For example, there are times Ruth questions herself whether she is overly sensitive about racism, there are times Turk questions whether his beliefs are wrong all along, and there are times Kennedy questions whether she is actually racist without knowing that she is. Both sides’ actions are justified, in some way, so that (I can only assume, since I’m neither white nor black) white people won’t feel that they are being wrongly portrayed, and black people won’t feel that this white author is trying too hard to be pro-Black.
I highly recommend this book to everyone—even if you are like me, who isn’t super interested in arguing and fighting about race, because the story is catchy and exciting.
P.S. If you enjoy reading this book, I recommend you to check out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s an extremely well-written work on aspects of racism in America, but the scenarios are completely different than Small Great Things.