This is the fifth in a series of posts about the books and articles that have had a strong impact on me as I seek to become a better ally and a better friend. I’m writing them as my capstone project for my BUILD Diversity Certificate. These thoughts are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DePaul Women’s Network, which is graciously allowing me to share them here, or of DePaul University. I welcome your comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.Small Great Things
By Jodi Picoult
This book shook me to my core. I had read another of Picoult’s books and was anticipating a wrenching read, but I was not prepared to wrestle with how this story was pulled from today’s news. While this is a work of fiction, I think it is happening right now in hospitals, courtrooms and neighborhoods across the country—including my own arguably integrated community.
Ruth Jefferson is an experienced labor and delivery nurse in a hospital in Connecticut. An African-American woman who believes herself part of an otherwise white team, she is assigned to care for the newborn child of white supremacist parents. They ask Ruth’s white supervisor to put a note in the chart barring Ruth from caring for their child, which the supervisor does, oblivious to both the patient care and oppressive implications. When the child goes into cardiac arrest, Ruth finds herself in an unwinnable situation, and her world begins to unravel with frightening speed.
I felt unduly proud of myself when I winced at the micro-aggressions characters committed in this book; sadly, I’ve learned how important it is to me to be seen as a “good white,” just like Ruth’s lawyer in the story. Far more important were the “reasonable” explanations that white characters gave—the rationalizations that I could easily spout—which revealed just how isolated Ruth and her teenage son were. Both Ruth and her lawyer find themselves questioning everything they’ve been taught and everything they thought was true.
With all that said, I thought the reveal at the end of the book seemed contrived. Since this is a work of fiction, the author has the freedom to provide a satisfying comeuppance that usually doesn’t happen in real life. Still, I think it would have been more powerful to have those individuals brought to their knees by the knowledge of what they caused through their own actions. If you’ve read it, what did you think?
I very much would like to discuss this book with some African-American women. I want to know if Ruth’s beliefs and experiences feel authentic. I’m happy to share how I think the thoughts and actions ascribed to the lawyer, Kennedy, and other white characters resonate with me. If you have read it and are willing to discuss it with me, please email me.