Racial prejudice has never been more open and prevalent than in recent months, in the wake of Brexit, Donald Trump becoming US President-elect and the Black Lives Matter movement. My Sister’s Keeper author Jodi Picoult, never one to shy away from controversial topics, tackles the issue of colour in her latest solo novel. She initially wanted to address this subject early on in her writing career, but felt too inexperienced to do it justice until now, two decades later. Small Great Things, taken from a Martin Luther King Jr quote, follows the case of experienced labour and delivery nurse Ruth Harrison, who happens to be black.
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 to touch their child. The hospital complies, 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?
A result, she 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.
The story is seen through three different perspectives – that of Ruth, her lawyer and the child’s father. How Ruth’s situation and trial unfolds will fill you with shock and disbelief, but above all, make you think about how the world is more than just black and white.
The American author has said: “Talking about racism is hard to do... but we who are white need to have this discussion amongst ourselves.” Well said Picoult, well said.