I’ve never read anything by Jodi Picoult. Her stuff always seemed a little cheesy to me. But, one of my book clubs is reading Small Great Things this month so I gave it a go. I was right. I hate read this in its entirety and you’ll enjoy my rambling, disconnected diatribe on why it sucked.
Small Great Things is the story of Ruth Jefferson, a 40-something African-American nurse in New Haven, CT; she is a 20-year veteran of the L&D ward and quite good at her job. One day, she goes to treat newborn baby Davis Bauer and gets a weird vibe from his parents, who barely speak to her and finally ask her not to touch them and to see her supervisor. Apparently, they’re white supremacists. They ask that Ruth be removed from their care and no African-American personnel touch their child. Ruth’s supervisor places a note in their file and things go on like normal. Ruth is offended and hurt that her white supervisor and coworkers don’t really understand her, but goes on with life. Then the coworker who replaced Ruth in caring for Davis has to leave for an emergency c-section and is forced to leave Ruth to watch over him after his circumcision. Something happens to Davis and Ruth is forced to decide whether to abide by her boss’ admonition against touching the baby and abandon all her training, or act and risk her livelihood. And so ensues a legal drama ripe with cliches, white guilt, and awful racists.
I gave this book two stars because I don’t think Picoult is a terrible writer, and especially after a certain point this book is difficult to stop reading. Though one of the main characters is incredibly difficult to empathize with, all the chapters whizz by. I think by the third chapter I’d already cried (trigger warning – babies die) and wanted to throw up in the span of half an hour. So let’s just say Picoult can write well enough and that’s why this didn’t get the one star treatment. Aside from that I don’t really have much else to say positive about this one. Well, ok, I did like some of the characters (Adisa/Rachel, for example). But let’s move on to what didn’t work.
First and foremost, I was completely unable to suspend my disbelief for this entire novel. New Haven is a large city. Even at a ‘small’ hospital, I find it incredibly hard to believe that there would be just one African-American nurse on any given ward, AND, that there wouldn’t be a single nurse aside from the banned one to watch over Davis. Also? I find it unlikely that any nurse or doctor would hesitate in any way to help a patient, even if their circumstances were unfortunate. I’ve known plenty of nurses in my life who encounter unpleasant patients and endure because it’s their job to save lives. The idea that the hospital would ever admit to any fault (even in the form of blaming an employee) sounds completely unlikely to me. If they do they settle out of court and quietly, but certainly not immediately. Then the ending!!!!!! I am going to spoil this book a little because I can’t help listing all the dumb shit we end up reading toward the last few chapters. First, Ruth’s lawyer (who has heretofore resisted bringing the race issue into the courtroom) goes on a walk in the bad part of town and after maybe an hour or so just magically understands white privilege. Are we in a Lifetime movie? Ruth is nearly free but then decides to get on the stand and tell the truth finally, after months of omitting some details. I find it hard to believe a mother would willingly risk jail time (especially a single one) to make a point. Perhaps not, perhaps that is MY white privilege shading my point of view. And then all the sudden we learn something about Davis’ mother and cut to a few years later and his father is all the sudden not into the whole supremacy thing anymore. Great for him but the circumstances around this change of heart just seem a little cheesy when taken together with everything else in the book.
I just remembered that I do think this book has some value in presenting to white people examples of little micro-aggressions we may be guilty of ourselves. In one of Ruth’s chapters, she remembers ‘friends’ from high school being amazed she needed sunscreen. There are a few things like that throughout the book that may remind us of little things we rarely have to think about but others live every day. In any case this hasn’t made me want to read more Picoult and to be honest, I can’t say it’s worth everyone’s time. If you like Picoult’s work, you’d probably like this.