Small Great Things: Book summary and reviews of Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Small Great Things

by Jodi Picoult

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult X
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2016
    480 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

With richly layered characters and a gripping moral dilemma that will lead readers to question everything they know about privilege, power, and race, Small Great Things is the stunning new page-turner from #1 New York Times bestselling author 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?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy's counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family - especially her teenage son - as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other's trust, and come to see that what they've been taught their whole lives about others - and themselves - might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion - and doesn't offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. [Picoult] offers a thought-provoking examination of racism in America today, both overt and subtle. Her many readers will find much to discuss in the pages of this topical, moving book." - Booklist

"Recommended for Picoult fans and book clubs that don't shy away from serious discussions." - Library Journal

"Picoult's conclusion occurs in a separate fairy-tale world where racism suddenly does not exist, resulting in a rather juvenile portrayal of racial politics in America." - Kirkus

"Unfortunately, the author undermines this richly drawn and compelling story with a manipulative final plot twist as well as a Pollyannaish ending. Some may be put off by the moralistic undertone of Picoult's tale, while others will appreciate the inspiration it provides for a much-needed conversation about race and prejudice in America." - Publishers Weekly

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Reader Reviews

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BeckyH

Thought provoking
I haven’t read any Piccoult for a while (a little tired of the “disease of the month” rut she seemed to be in), so I had avoided this book also. But I kept hearing really good things about it. People who didn’t read Piccoult LOVED it. So, I gave it a shot.
All those good things I heard were true. This is a good book! The tale revolves around an African-American nurse. She is a good nurse with a sterling reputation until she is Labor and Delivery nurse to the wife of a white supremacist. This IS a Piccoult book, so, of course, something terrible happens to the baby. Now the tale becomes sympathetic (yes, sympathetic) portrayals of a white, racist, perfectly awful man, his white racist, perfectly awful wife and a here-to-for unbiased, wonderful person African-American nurse and her honor roll student , off to Yale son.
You will learn more medical jargon than you ever wanted to know and, maybe, discover a few of your own biases and prejudices. This is a good story, well told, that will keep you wondering about yourself until the final pages.
5 of 5 stars

Cloggie Downunder

Moving and thought-provoking
“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit?”

Small Great Things is the 22nd adult novel by American author, Jodi Picoult. Ruth Jeffries is an experienced neonatal nurse, working in the Labour and Delivery suite at Mercy-West Haven Hospital in Connecticut. Having performed her usual checks on baby Davis Bauer, she is shocked to be told she may not have any further contact with him. Turk Bauer is a White Supremacist and determined that no black nurse is going to touch his child.

Notwithstanding the directive, some time later Ruth finds herself faced with a dilemma when Davis stops breathing. Despite emergency intervention, Davis dies and Turk is convinced that Ruth is responsible. When Ruth is arrested, it is Public Defender Kennedy McQuarrie who represents her for the arraignment, and helps her seventeen-year-old son organise bail. Seeing the opportunity to gain experience, Kennedy asks to be assigned to Ruth’s case, a case that would normally go to someone more experienced.

Picoult uses three narrators: Ruth, Turk and Kennedy give the perspective of the black defendant, the White Supremacist and the privileged white lawyer who believes herself impartial to race. Characters that begin as somewhat stereotypical soon develop a depth that may surprise. Likewise, the plot that seems to be headed to a fairly predictable conclusion develops a few interesting twists. Drama and tension are relieved by the delightfully funny banter between Kennedy and her family.

This is a story that is packed with emotion: sorrow and grief, love and hate, guilt and shame, all guarantee some lump-in-the throat moments. Words of wisdom and insightful observations are a feature: “It is amazing how you can look in a mirror your whole life and think you are seeing yourself clearly. And then one day, you peel off a filmy gray layer of hypocrisy, and you realize that you’ve never truly seen yourself at all”

Picoult also gives the reader some marvellous descriptive prose: “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 can shoot sparks” and “We passed a few women in the kitchen, who were bouncing from fridge to cabinets and back like popcorn kernels on a hot griddle, who were exploding one at a time with commands: Get the plates! Don’t forget the ice cream!” are examples.

Of course, only a person of colour may judge if Picoult’s portrayal of a black woman is accurate, and, while many will criticise this white author, with her privileged upbringing and education, for having the audacity to present a black person’s perspective, her extensive research, as mentioned in the author’s note, is apparent in every paragraph.

Racism is a big topic to tackle, so if an author of Picoult’s talent and reputation can make even a few more people truly aware of it, and cause them to honestly examine their own attitude towards it, then this book is worthy of praise. Moving and thought-provoking, Picoult’s latest offering is another brilliant read.

CarolK

Feeling conflicted
Jodi Picoult is well known for not shying away from the tough topics, in this case, that of race in present day America. A black nurse, working on a Labor & Delivery floor at Yale, is “fired”, forbidden to care for the son of a white supremacist. If the ramifications of this are not enough, Picoult offers a lesson in facing one’s own prejudices for consideration. Told in alternating pov, Picoult’s winning formula has proved successful once again.

Small Great Things has stayed with me these past few months. I don’t think I have felt as conflicted about any book as much as this one in a long time. I liked Small Great Things for the questions it presented, its ability to make me think and the conversations with others it has encouraged. Plot wise I did have some issues with the outcome. I could live with that. What kept niggling at my brain is whether or not the voice of the main character, Ruth, rang true. This is a difficult question for me to answer. I’m a white middle-aged woman, living in a predominantly white community who has few African American friends.

In the author’s note, Picoult explains that early in her career she wanted to write a book about racism in the United States. She knew little about what it was like to grow up Black in our country. She gave the thought up. Moving forward twenty years the urge to write about racism came up again. She questioned her right to write an experience she had never lived. And yet she had written about subjects and voices she had not lived before. Why should this be different?

I have often wondered how it must feel for a person of color to walk into a room, into a sea of white faces, to live in a world where most people look different than you. That is just the tip of the iceberg of questions Picoult tried to explore. I honestly wondered if I had the right to like Small Great Things without any real experiences to go by or conversation with anyone other than my own race about perspective on this book

After reading a review of Small Great Things composed by my friend Tracey, a woman of color, I contacted her and we were able to discuss our feelings about the book. What really stood out to me in Tracey’s review was this quote:

”I didn't want Ruth to have to be a teaching moment. I wanted Ruth to be able to have her story without the function being to teach white people something. I believe that if this was written by a person of color, this would have been Ruth's story.”

Many fans of the book feel getting people to talk about the subjects of prejudice and race are enough to make this a winner. A small example of its popularity is illustrated by my suggestion to my daughter to read Small Great Things so we might discuss it. Her library had 300 holds on the book. Amazing and a bit sad.

With consideration to my own mixed feelings I’ve decided that Ms. Picoult’s intentions may have been good but I believe she missed the mark on this one. I will remain open-minded however and am willing to continue the discussion.

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Author Information

Jodi Picoult Author Biography

Photo: Nina Subin

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-five novels, including Small Great Things, Leaving Time, The Storyteller, Lone Wolf, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, and My Sister's Keeper. She is also the author, with daughter Samantha van Leer, of two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.

Author Interview
Link to Jodi Picoult's Website

Name Pronunciation
Jodi Picoult: jo-dee pee-coh

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