Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Ruth has been a labor and delivery nurse at her hospital for 20 years; she’s a skilled nurse and a respected colleague. She’s also black. When a white supremacist couple requests that Ruth not be allowed to care for their newborn, Ruth’s supervisor complies. Things spiral downward when the baby faces complications. Ruth becomes the target of the family’s anger and, subsequently, their lawsuit. Written from three perspectives, Picoult gives us the voices of not only Ruth, but also the disturbing perspective of the baby’s racist father and the point of view of the affluent, white lawyer who takes on Ruth’s defense.

This novel kept me turning pages; while it is a bit overwritten at times, I cared deeply about what was going to happen to Ruth. However, I was acutely uncomfortable that I was reading the perspective of what it’s like to be a black woman in America as written by a white author. As I got to the end of the novel, I had settled into a feeling that the author was as aware of that precarious position as I was.

In the book, Ruth’s well-intentioned lawyer comes to the realization that white people have got to start talking to each other about racism, rather than ignoring an uncomfortable topic just because they can. This novel came across as her attempt to get that conversation started among her readers.

Then I got to the end of the novel, and the author’s note says exactly that. The note expresses her own trepidation over writing such a book, and she explains the way she based it on the stories that others were willing to give her. She also includes an impressive bibliography that was part of her self-education as she began writing the story.

While I would not advocate reading this in place of novels or memoirs written by people of color who have experienced racism firsthand, I suspect that the bestselling Picoult knows that some of her vast readership may never be exposed to those books, so she’s taking the opportunity to reach those people.

Perhaps even more precarious is the possibility of writing a novel with a message in mind rather than being in service to the characters and story. Picoult falls victim to that at times when she spells things out a bit too clearly. Still, she has developed some interesting characters and an interesting plot. If this gets readers talking to each other about what it’s like to be the victim of racism or the beneficiary of privilege, it’s well worth reading. (Ballantine)

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