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Review: ‘Small Great Things’ is an uncomfortably introspective look at racism in America



New York Times Bestselling Author Jodi Picoult does not mess around. Preceding election day by nearly a month, the author published a complex and insightful novel titled “Small Great Things” on Oct. 6, 2016. In a country where division is at an all-time high and hate is spewing in every direction, Picoult offers a book that tackles race head on and challenges even the most strong-willed readers.

Set in present day Connecticut, protagonist Ruth Jefferson earned a degree from Yale Nursing School and has been working at Mercy-West Haven Hospital for 20 years as the only Black nurse on the labor and delivery floor. She lives in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood and has a teenage son on the honor roll. Despite her stature, Ruth’s character and credibility are stripped from her when she is called to perform a routine check-up on a newborn.

Ruth is instantly dehumanized by Turk and Brittany Bauer, two white supremacists who are not the least bit ashamed when they aggressively assert that they don’t want Ruth, or anyone who looks like her, touching their baby boy.

The story twists even further when baby Davis Bauer goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone with him in the nursery. For a moment she freezes, unsure whether or not she should take action. After all, her boss placed a sticky note on Bauer’s file stating that no African American personnel are allowed to care for the child — she could lose her job if she helps.

Nonetheless, Ruth begins CPR as a flood of other staff members rush onto the scene, but it is too late. Baby Davis did not make it, and in a room swarming with medical professionals, all Turk and Brittany Bauer see is Ruth — a Black woman — standing over their dead child.

Picoult’s desire to expose race and discrimination in the U.S. isn’t a far cry from the subjects of her other novels. She has written about school shootings, suicide, autism, child abuse and cancer, among other things. She comes to the plate armed with thorough research and rich details, giving readers an up-close and personal view into the gripping lives of her characters by telling stories from each of their perspectives.

“Small Great Things” is uncomfortably introspective, bringing racism to light where it was previously unrecognized, forcing readers to take inventory of their own prejudices.

The chapters told from Turk Bauer’s perspective introduce readers to a whole new level of hate and bigotry, revealing the disgusting thoughts, secrets and tactics of white supremacy. Up until the day she met the Bauers, Ruth tried to live her life ignoring the fact that her skin color made a difference in the way she was treated.

Similar to Ruth, people of color in today’s society are being discriminated against and stereotyped. So much of this issue is based upon a lack of empathy and communication. People today can be so righteous in their opinions that they fail to have compassion and lack the ability to listen to someone else’s experiences and feelings. Picoult has created a story where those barriers are beginning to be broken down. Although there is a long way to go, the characters in “Small Great Things” challenge their prejudices by admitting they experience situations differently and asking each other questions.

Jodi Picoult covers all her bases and presents a well-rounded approach to American racism. “Small Great Things” is a platform for understanding and an avenue for people of all different backgrounds and cultures to find common ground. Throughout the novel, readers will walk a road of self-discovery and develop into a more informed version of themselves.


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Sarah Urban

Sarah Urban

Sarah Urban is an associate A&C editor at the Emerald from San Jose, CA.

For tips or questions contact her at [email protected] or check out her work at sarahurbann.com