Thursday, November 10, 2016
Review of "Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult
In "Small Great Things" Jodi Picoult addresses the topic of racism in America. The story revolves around Ruth Jefferson, an educated black woman who's been a skilled labor and delivery nurse in a Connecticut hospital for over 20 years. Ruth, the widow of a decorated soldier, lives in a nice neighborhood with her teenage son Edison - a fine student who plans to attend college. Ruth has high hopes for Edison, who's been raised to strive for success.
Things are going well for Ruth until she tends to Davis Bauer, the newborn son of Turk and Brittany Bauer. The Bauer parents are white supremacists who can't abide a black person touching their child. They make a fuss and complain to the charge nurse, who puts a note in the infant's file stating 'no African-American personnel can handle this baby.' As it happens Ruth is the only black nurse in the unit, so it's clear the note refers to her.
Before long two white nurses who work in the nursery are called away for critical situations and Ruth is left alone with Davis. The baby - who just had a medical procedure - stops breathing and Ruth is torn about what to do. If she helps Davis she could be fired. If she doesn't help him she's violating her nurse's oath. Very soon a 'code blue' is called and Ruth gives Davis CPR, but the baby dies. To Ruth's shock, her nursing license is suspended and she loses her job.
Turk and Brittany are devastated by their child's death and want someone to blame. The hospital's attorney - who needs to protect her employer - points them in Ruth's direction. In a harrowing scene, the cops hustle into Ruth's house at 3:00 A.M, handcuff Edison, and arrest Ruth - who's charged with murder. As things play out Ruth is represented by a legal aid attorney named Kennedy McQuarrie. Kennedy knows the case has a strong racial element but insists she can't use the 'race card' during the trial because it wouldn't play well with with the jury. This seems wrong to Ruth...(and I didn't understand it either.)
The story is told from the rotating points of view of Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk - so the reader learns about the characters' backstories as well as what's going on with them now. We find out that Ruth felt like an outsider at the 'white' schools she attended; that she felt embarrassed to wrap her hair at a white girls' sleepover; that some merchants regard her as a probable thief; that her son Edison was turned down when he asked a white girl to a dance; etc. In short, almost all white people in Ruth's orbit are at least a little bit racist, whether they realize it or not.
As Ruth and Kennedy prepare for the trial, other things are going on. Ruth - out on bail - has to take a minimum wage job. This embarrasses Edison, who's already acting out and getting into trouble. Ruth's situation also attracts the attention of an Al Sharpton-type character who wants to use her case to rouse the black community. All this adds to Ruth's anxiety.
Additional characters in the story include Ruth's mother - a housekeeper for a wealthy white family; Ruth's sister - the militant member of the family; Ruth's co-workers - who don't step up when things get rough; Kennedy's husband and daughter - loving antidotes to her difficult job; and Turk's father-in-law - who taught young Bauer to be a vicious skinhead.
The trial part of the book is compelling, and I liked the scenes of jury selection and questioning of witnesses (I'm a big fan of Perry Mason. LOL). The book's climax and ending are a bit contrived, but satisfying.
The author tells a good story that's relevant to what's going on today, with young black men being shot by cops and African-Americans still experiencing discrimination. My biggest problem is that the author sets up a situation so extreme that it's hard to believe. Ruth is the ONLY black person in her hospital group. The note is SUPER offensive; Turk is EXCEPTIONALLY vicious; and so on. To me it seems like every important character in the book is more of a 'type' than a real person.
Still, this is a good book, recommended to fans of literary fiction.