Book review: New novel explores racism, justice

This book review of "Small Great Things," by Jodi Picolt, is written by Virgie DeNucci, a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path. This review was originally published in Steamboat Pilot.

Books: 
Staff Pick Logo
Small Great Things Cover Image
$28.99
ISBN: 9780345544957
Availability: Backordered
Published: Ballantine Books - October 11th, 2016

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

“Small Great Things” begins with these words by Benjamin Franklin and sets the central themes for this novel: racism and justice. Author Jodi Picoult weaves a complicated story based on the true life of an African American nurse in Flint, Michigan, whose circumstances parallel Ruth, the main character of the novel.

Picoult’s novel is told from three points of view: Ruth, a successful 20-year veteran labor and delivery nurse; Turk, an outspoken white supremacist skinhead who flaunts a swastika tattoo on his head; and Kennedy, a white woman and a passionate public defender, who believes that, though she will never be rich, she will at least be able to look at herself in the mirror each night.

Turk and his wife have a baby son who was born at Mercy-West Haven Hospital. Ruth, a neonatal nurse, is assigned to care for the newborn baby, Davis, and his mother, Brit. When Ruth arrives to conduct a routine check on Davis and Brit, Turk demands that no African American be allowed to care for his baby or his wife.

Several days later, following the baby’s circumcision — a routine medical procedure — a medical emergency occurs within the hospital, and in the confusion, Ruth is left alone to monitor the newborn. Within minutes the baby goes into cardiac distress, so Ruth tends to him until the medical team arrives. The baby dies.

The parents file criminal murder charges against Ruth. This is where the novel begins, then proceeds through the trial. The story flashes to the past to understand each character’s background.

Much of the story centers on the evolving relationship between Ruth and Kennedy, her defense attorney. Kennedy advises Ruth against bringing up race in a criminal trial, explaining it is one of those unspoken rules of the courtroom. Juries don’t respond well when one uses the “race card.”

I don’t want to spoil the last day of the trial, but I will mention that it effectively ties together the purpose of the story.

“Small Great Things” takes a raw, critical look at racism, specifically, the subtleties that perpetuate, instead of change, a flawed system. Active racism is easy to spot, but passive racism is more difficult to discern.

This novel made me ponder and reconsider how I really think and feel about these issues. In my opinion, this powerful book is written for our times and will generate deep discussions for book clubs.