Small Great Things
By Jodi Picoult
Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years' experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she's been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don't want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?
Normally when I post a review of a book I have only finished reading it a few days before but this book had so many layers to it that I read it three times before beginning to write the review. I always enjoy her books this one I enjoyed in a different way as it also made me feel uncomfortable. This is definitely a book that will linger after reading.
The book begins with the main character Ruth talking about her mother’s workplace and an experience she had there when she was a child. She witnessed her mother helping her boss through labour and that experience was what prompted her to choose the career path she did. “That day I witnessed a greater wonder…there was a moment – one heartbeat, one breath – where all the differences in schooling and money and skin colour evaporated like mirages in a dessert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman helping another. That miracle, I’ve spent thirty-nine years waiting to see again.”
After the birth Ruth’s mother returned with two paramedics and “what mama had done for Ms. Mina became like everything else she did for the Hallowells; seamless and invisible.”
Ruth’s mother is an influential figure in her life and has worked for the same family for years as a housekeeper. Ruth tells us in the first paragraphs how she and her sister were often taken to work with their mother if for some reason they were not in school, such was her mother’s work ethic. “Mr Hallowell was away in California that week, which happened often, and which meant Ms.Mina and Christina needed mama even more. So did Rachel and I, but we were better at taking care of ourselves, I suppose than Ms Mina was.”
Ruth’s relationship with her mother was a pleasure to read about, “”I planned my schedule so I was always home for dinner, to tell my mother about my day…If mama hadn’t spent thirty years scrubbing the floors at Ms.Mina’s house, I wouldn’t be on the train at all.”
Racism comes in all forms and this is illustrated time and time again throughout the book in a million little ways both overt and covert. One example of this occurs early in the book when Ruth is talking to a friend and colleague about her son:
“Still,” Marie says. For a boy like Edison to be successful…well. You should be proud, is all. I can only hope Ella turns out to be that good a student. A boy like Edison. I know what she is saying even if she’s careful not to spell it out. There are not many black kids in the high school, and as far as I know, Edison’s the only one on the Highest Honors list. Comments like this feel like paper cuts, but I’ve worked with Marie for over ten years now, so I try to ignore the sting. I know she doesn’t really mean anything by it. She’s a friend, after all.”
When we are first introduced to Turk it is within one of the chapters from Ruth’s point of view. “Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it sparks.” Ruth is looking after his baby boy, Davis. Davis is reluctant to feed and Ruth tries to help at which point Turk tells her that he wants to talk to her supervisor.
The resulting conversation filled me with disgust, “I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her touching my son,” the father interrupts, and he folds his arms across his chest. He’s pushed up his sleeve, while I was out the room. Running from wrist to elbow on one arm is the tattoo of a confederate flag. Marie stops talking. For a moment, I honestly don’t understand. And then it hits me with the force of a blow: they don’t have a problem with what I’ve done. Just with who I am.”
The first line of the chapter from Turk’s point of view made me wince, “The first nigger I ever met killed my older brother.” However, there was an incident with a piñata which made me wince even more.
This paragraph by Turk on his wife, Brit, seems sweet until you get to the last sentence:
“We have been married for two years, but, I still can’t believe that Brit is mine. She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, for one, and in the Movement, she’s about as close to royalty as you can get.”
We also learn that Turk and other followers of the movement are ‘angels’ in ‘this race war.’ He feels that his baby is perfect before birth but will be tainted as soon as he is born.
Throughout the book the author deals very well with the subject of grief, for example when Turk talks about the death of his brother. “After my brother died, everything fell apart. It was like that trial had ripped off the outside layer of skin, and what was left of my family was just a lot of blood and guts with nothing to hold it together anymore.” His dad left them after the death of his brother and his mum started drinking.
Again another example of grief came from Turk, “I’ve heard plenty of platitudes today: he’s in a better place; he’s a fallen soldier; time heals all wounds. What no one told me about grief and how lonely it is. No matter who else is mourning, you’re in your own little cell. Even when people are trying to comfort you, you’re aware how there is a barrier between you and them, made of the horrible thing that keeps you isolated.”
Turk became involved with the Movement after meeting a man called Raine Tesco when he a freshman in high school, “Raine was the first person who really got me.” They used to talk about the way the major TV networks were run by Jews and the news was skewed so that “we would believe whatever they wanted us to believe.” He talked about things they all thought but wouldn’t say in public. He legitimized their beliefs and gave people like Turk somewhere to focus their anger on.
Raine took him to a sort of summer camp with likeminded people who belonged to a group called NADS: North American Death Squad. At the camp, “there were stacks of targets; more Jewish profiles, but also black ones, with giant lips and sloping foreheads.”
This is where he met Francis Mitchum, ‘one of the old guard’, a man with a spider web tattooed on his elbow and about ten flies on it – one for each person he had killed. Francis came across as charismatic and hateful, “they would not even be domesticated if not for the help of Whites.” He is also the kind of man he equates killing “a nigger” with killing a deer.
Reading Turk’s chapter and his description of Ruth looking after Davis made me mad, “All I can think is: over my dead body. It takes every ounce of willpower for me not to shove her away from my wife, my son. But security is only a buzzer away from my wife, my son and if they throw me out of the hospital what good does that do us? If I can’t be here to protect my family, then I’ve already lost.”
I also felt anger when reading of the test Turk had to pass to get into the American Death Squad. The task involved a test which was concocted by Raine and one which made me feel sick to read. Sadly, it is something I am sure happens.
Of the incident Turk states that, “for sixteen years, I’d been building up steam, because I wasn’t my dead brother and never would be; because I couldn’t be ; because I couldn’t keep my parents together. Because I wasn’t the grandson my grandfather wanted, because I was too stupid or hot headed or weird.”
Likewise his recruiting technique for the North American Death Squad, “I made them believe they had worth, simply because of the colour they had been born. When they complained about anything on campus, from the registration process to the food, I reminded them that the president of the school was a Jew, and that it was all part of a bigger plan by the Zionist Occupation Government to supress us. I taught them ‘Us’ meant ‘White.’”
My dislike for Turk grew further when he spoke of his hierarchy of hate. “Personally, I hate Spics more than I hate Asians, I hate Jews more than that, and at the very top of the chart, I despise Blacks. But even more than any these groups, the people you always hate most are antiracist. White folks. Because they are turncoats.”
The thing that annoyed me the most was the post it note that her friend and colleague put on Davis’ note “No African American Personnel to Care for this patient.”
Ruth was a very likeable character and I felt my emotions go up and down with hers despite not being able to know how someone in her situation would feel. “I’m tired of being the only Black nurse on the birthing pavilion. I’m tired of pretending that doesn’t matter. I’m tired.”
Her love for her job and her compassion shone through during the novel, “Yes, this is a trial against me. Yes, I was blamed for something I shouldn’t have been blamed for. But at the end of the day, there’s still a dead baby. There’s still a mama who doesn’t get to watch him grow up. I could be acquitted; I could become a shining light for Wallace Mercy’s message; I could sue in civil court for damages and get a payout that makes my nerves about Edison’s college bills disappear – and still, I would know that nobody had really won this case. Because you can’t erase the colossal, tragic loss of life at it’s very beginning.”
Alongside the other examples of racism were some that may seem like throwaway comments like a school friend of Ruth’s telling her she didn’t act black or Edison’s best friend saying his parents wouldn’t be cool with his sister dating a Black guy.
Ruth’s sister acts a counterpart to Ruth herself, she is outspoken about injustice where she finds it and embraces her identity as a Black person. ‘Rachel’ legally changed her name to Adisa and “started wearing her hair in it’s natural curly state.” Ruth felt that “even her name judges the rest of us for not knowing the truth she knows.”
Adisa tells Ruth that she has partly brought her troubles on herself because she has chosen to live her life ‘too White.’ “What happened to you happens to the rest of us every day. Every hour. You’re just so used to playing games by their rules you forgot you got skin in the game.”
Adisa’s role in the book is also to say things that Ruth as a character wouldn’t. For example, “White folks have spent years giving Black folks their freedom on paper, but deep down they still expect us to say yes, massuh, and be quiet and grateful for what we got. If we speak our minds we can lose our jobs, our homes, hell, even our lives. Wallace is the man who gets to be angry for us. If it wasn’t for him, white folks would never know the stupid shit they do upsets us, and Black folks would get madder and madder because they can’t risk talking back. Wallace Mercy is what keeps the powder keg in this country from blowing up.”
Kennedy, is a public defender and takes on Ruth’s case. She is an interesting character because she genuinely doesn’t believe she is racist or prejudice in any way and as such she provides a counterpoint to Turk’s racist point of view. “How incredibly easy it is behind white skin, I think looking at these probable supremacists. The benefit of the doubt is in your favour. You’re not suspicious.”
Kennedy’s role is also to take the blinkers off the reader’s eyes and make us realise quite how much covert racism exists in society and popular culture, including Disney. “Did you know that in the Lion King, the hyenas – the bad guys – all speak in either Black or Latino slang? And that the little cubs are told not to go where the hyenas live? Do you realise that Scar the villain, is darker than Mustafa?”
“That’s when I realize that Ruth didn’t want me to come here with her because she needed my help picking out a present for her mother. Ruth wanted me to come here so that I could understand what it was like to be her. The manager hovering, in case of shoplifting. The wariness of the cashier. The fact that out of a dozen people leaving T.J.Maxx at the same time, Ruth was the only one whose bag was checked.”
Kennedy also acts as a sounding board for Ruth’s awakening to injustice’s, “you ever think our misfortune is directly related to your good fortune? Maybe the hous your parents bought was on the market because the sellers didn’t want my mama in the neighbourhood. Maybe the good grades that eventually led you to law school were only possible because your mama didn’t have to work eighteen hours a day, and was there to read to you at night, or make sure you did your homework. How often do you remind yourself how lucky you are that you own your own house because you were able to build equity through generations in a way families of colour can’t? How often do you open your mouth at work and think how awesome it is that no one’s thinking you’re speaking for everyone with the same skin colour you have?”
One skill of Jodi Picoult’s I have always admired is her ability to give even the most despicable character a human side. For me, every time there was something to do with his grief surrounding his son it gave him a slightly softer side. “I’m standing in the middle of the nursery my son is never going to use.
My fists are like two anvils at my sides, I want to swing them I want to punch holes in the plaster. I want the whole fucking room to come tumbling down.”
Likewise I felt a glimmer of hope at the initial part of the following paragraph;
“Twinkie was a black kid who was my age. We talked a lot about girls, and how we missed hooking up with them…Somehow it didn’t matter so much what colour his skin was, had I met him on the streets of Hartfood, I would have kicked his ass. But in jail, it was different.”
One of the things which opened my eyes was a conversation between Ruth and Edison because without thinking too hard I could see it was true, “We got Rosa Parks and Dr King and that’s about it. You even hear of a brother named Lewis Latimer? He drew telephone parts for Alexander Graham Bell’s patent applications, and worked as a draftsman and patent expert for Thomas Edison. But you didn’t name me after him because you didn’t know he existed. The only time people who look like us are making history, it’s a footnote.”
As always this book had some good twists and turns along the way and made me go through every emotion until I felt wrung out. I think everyone should have to read it.
Our Final Rating...
Read & Shared 159 Times.