Every once in a while, a book comes along that you just can’t shake. It surfaces in dreams and in casual conversation, or it brushes against your consciousness as you encounter the rush of everyday life.
Jodi Picoult’s new novel, “Small Great Things,” is one of those stories, closely inspired by a true legal case.
Ruth Jefferson is a black single mom with an accomplished career as a labor and delivery nurse. She takes great pride in helping bring new lives into the world and coaching new parents through their babies’ earliest moments.
But when she enters the room where a couple welcomed a son just hours before, she’s met with hostility. We learn that the parents are white supremacists who make it clear they do not want a black nurse touching their baby. In a move that will come under much scrutiny, a hospital manager writes a note on the patient’s file that “no African-American personnel” are to be allowed to interact with the baby.
This story isn’t taking place in 1950. It’s present day.
Ruth is stunned and insulted at the racial rejection but decides to suppress her indignation and make her peace with it. That is, until the baby’s survival is suddenly in jeopardy and she’s the only nurse on duty who can step in to save him.
What follows is tragedy, self-doubt, accusations and hateful recriminations. In what should rightly be an unbelievable turn of events, Ruth soon finds herself on trial for murder.
Picoult leads us through a story filled with social land mines, daring us to confront our own racial prejudices even when — especially when — we may feel we have none. The main vehicle for this exploration is Ruth’s white public defender, who comes from a privileged family and considers herself colorblind. It’s a study in implicit bias, something of a buzz phrase in today’s America rocked by police shootings of black men and resulting protests and investigations that too often generate more deep-seated ill will than any sense of justice.
Regular readers of Picoult know that one of her hallmarks is examining a cause or sensitive topic through the different lenses of her characters — gay rights and evangelism (“Sing You Home”), saving Africa’s elephants (“Leaving Time”), hidden scars of the Holocaust (“The Storyteller”), medical rights of children (“My Sister’s Keeper”). But this theme is even more intimate. It requires no particular fascination with the topic because it’s a fundamental part of each of us. Yet the author manages not to be preachy, instead tackling the complex layers of racial relations with a blunt honesty and disarming humility.
Through her characters’ eyes, we live Ruth’s fears that discrimination could cause her to lose everything, even in this day. We feel the wrenching effects of the accusations and the trial on her bright teenage son. We struggle with her lawyer through white guilt and the dawning realization that bias is staring us in the face every day. We even see the world through the chilling eyes of a white supremacist, who in his grief and hate sees only one possible culprit for the loss of his son, and he aims to make her pay.
The title of “Small Great Things” is a reference to a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Picoult acknowledges in her afterword that she expects to take heat for being a white author trying to write about what it means to be black. But she challenges us all to accept our racism, however subtle or unintended, and realize that our ignorance of our neighbors’ reality is a white privilege unto itself.
The book is a courageous and important work. It was devoured in one devoted sitting and well worth the investment of time, emotion and the humble resignation that even with small, great steps, we still have a long way to go.
Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.
Small Great Things
By: Jodi Picoult.
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 470 pages, $28.99.