At a time when race relations loom larger in the public eye than any decade since the 1960s, New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult has plunged into the deep end of the conversation with Small Great Things, a tale of prejudice, tragedy, justice, privilege and conflict.
The title comes from a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” And for the most part, the book’s protagonist, nurse Ruth Jefferson, is the personification of that ideal. Unfortunately, fate deals her a nearly unwinnable set of cards when she is alone in the nursery as young Davis Bauer goes into cardiac arrest. Normally, her instincts would kick in immediately, but this baby is different: He’s the son of white supremacist parents who have explicitly directed that no person of color be allowed to care for him. And Ruth is black. For a few critical moments, Ruth wonders whether she should violate the order and potentially lose her job, or jump in, knowing that she will soon be able to turn him over to another nurse.
Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law ruled the nursery that night.
After a code blue is called and an expert team—including Ruth, who is pressed into service despite the directive—races through its paces to try to save young Davis, but the baby dies. Running through the postmortem in her head, Ruth wonders if her initial hesitation contributed to the child’s death.
She’s not the only one. Ruth gets charged with one count of murder and one count of negligent homicide. Suddenly the respected nurse is just another defendant, whose future hangs on the ability of her white public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie, to figure out some strategy that will keep her client out of jail.
While riveting, this is by no means an easy book; all the players have virtues and flaws, and uncomfortable questions are raised on virtually every page. And while a few of her characters embody behaviors that some might find formulaic, Picoult navigates the waters like a seasoned journalist, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, trying to do the small things in a great way. The first step to solving a problem is recognizing it; the second is trying to speak about it honestly, and whatever readers think of the result, Picoult has made a genuine effort here, as she details both in her author’s note and her acknowledgements. It’s a laudable attempt, and no small thing.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and tries to steer clear of both hospitals and courts.