Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Rating: 5 stars
I hadn't read a Jodi Picoult novel in quite a while, I had loved the initial releases on which she made her name such as My Sister's Keeper and Nineteen Minutes but I had become hardened to the moral dilemma format of her stories and had begun to find them samey, in fact the last book I read was the one's that saw her writing with her daughter as they were a complete departure from the norm. Advertising for Small Great Things really captured my imagination though.
This is the story of Ruth, a 40 something Black Labour & Delivery nurse with more than 20 years experience in her job. A single parent working hard to raise her honour roll son to be able to fulfil his potential and gain entry to a good college. She is called in to assist in the post delivery checks for a couple on her ward and is shocked when during her examinations the father demands that she not touch his newborn and asks to speak to her supervisor. It quickly becomes apparent that the father, a white supremacist, has elected to have her removed from the child's care because of the colour of her skin. Barred from touching the child she is angry and upset at the lack of support she received from her colleagues and disgusted by the beliefs of the father. She carries on with her job though until she finds herself, in an emergency, left alone with the child as he recovers from a circumcision. When the child stops breathing she is faced with a choice, does she assist the child and break the guideline she's been given not to touch him or does she ignore the fact the child is in distress.
Picoult has picked a very difficult topic for this novel, it is one the author admits she has been longing to write for some time since she read a story about a black undercover police officer being shot in the back by his colleagues during an altercation despite having the designated marker highlighting him as police clearly showing. Race issues in the United States have been igniting more and more often recently as people question the way police officers treat people of African American heritage.
In this book Picoult brings it to the fore in a story where Ruth is charged with the murder of the newborn she has been told she cannot touch because of her race, when the father of the child deems her responsible for his death. From there we find ourselves seeing events through the eyes of all the different characters in turn. Ruth, who has always seen herself as part of the hospital team, a good mother and with a son with wonderful prospects suddenly finds herself on trial for nothing other than her race, she begins to question everything she's stood for and the steps she's taken to ensure she 'fits in'. Turk, the father of the baby leads us through his journey into the world of white supremacy, his relationship with his wife Brittany who shares his beliefs and the violence that always bubbles just below his surface. Finally we view events through the eyes of Kennedy, Ruth's lawyer who is undertaking her first murder trial and has to tread a careful line of not making the courtroom case entirely about race as that is not how the system would view as appropriate.
It is a book that I found quite difficult to read because some of the chapters shine a light on a hard truth, that race equality is something that although we believe we have made progress with is still, and may always be an issue right across the world. One chapter highlighted it best for me when Kennedy visits a store and finds herself faced with hair products for black people and states that she has no idea how these work or that they ever existed because the only shampoo or hair commercials we ever see on TV are for white people. Similarly how when 80% of the celebrities in movies are white then that means that so often the movies on screen do not represent the world as black children know it. Whilst this is the case how can we ever claim that equality exists?
Having a break from the novels of Picoult perhaps allowed me to really reach into this one with such enjoyment. Really when you strip everything away the old tried and tested format she has become famous for was the basis for this story and that hadn't changed so perhaps if I'd come to this direct from one of her other more recent books I wouldn't have found it quite so fresh and engaging. It is brilliant then that I've had that break and it felt like catching up with a long lost friend as I slipped back into her writing style.
This book is one that will cause you to question yourself, your own approach to race and as Kennedy says in the book force us to admit that really we are all still a little racist as the system is built that way. It challenges the way you look at the subject, it forces you to look at the extreme beliefs of Turk and Brittany and question how this level of hatred can still exist. It also has the most wonderful ending, the most unexpected twist and this for me was such a wonderful gem of a way to end the book. I don't want to say too much as it would ruin it for other readers but when the event happens you catch your breath and silently punch the air, you suddenly see the whole truth and it's appropriate and a twist that will make it stand out from other books for me in months and years ahead.
Absolutely wonderful and very very highly recommended.