Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
” I fold my arms and stare down at the newborn.
Babies are such blank slates. they don’t come into this world with the assumptions their parents have made, or the promises their church will give, or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don’t like. They don’t come into this world with anything, really, except the need for comfort. And they will take it from anyone, without judging the giver.
I wonder how long it takes before the polish given by nature gets worn off by nurture. “
Growing up in the South, I am no stranger to racism. I spent the first ten years of my life living in a poor part of Louisiana, and from then, moved on to a less-than-affluent part of a small suburb of Dallas. In Louisiana, I was the only white kid on my street. I was one of the only white kids at my school. The majority of my teachers were black. All of my friends, except one, were black. And as a child, I didn’t really notice. Sure, we had different colors to our skin. Our hair was different. But we all played with dolls and rode our bikes, and we all ran around after dark without shoes on and tried to catch fireflies so we could smash their bodies onto our skin and watch it glow in the moonlight.
But as I grew older, the veil of childhood and all of it’s quiet innocence faded and fell. “Nigger” was a word that was frequently used around the dining table, and it was a word used by my father, my grandfather, and their friends to describe every black person. To them, every black person was the same – they were inferior. And every white person was the same – they were superior. But I think what shocked me the most was how my father and grandfather treated black people to their faces. They treated them as if they never said those terrible words about their entire race behind closed doors. They were fake. And I think that is what outraged me more than anything as a child and teenager growing up in the South.
As an adult, I cannot say that I am a racist. I also cannot say that I am not. I don’t think it’s truly for me to decide. . . those dirty labels that we throw upon one another like so much filth and rags, they are not for me to put onto myself. I can say I have black friends, and I’ve heard that that is one “the most racist things a white person can say.” I don’t know why, but that’s probably because I’m not black. I can say that I feel more comfortable with people outside of my own race than I do with my own. Perhaps it’s because of those years I grew up running around the neighborhood with black kids, flagging down the ice cream truck and pooling our pennies together to get one ice cream to share. Perhaps it is because during my elementary school years, it was my black teachers — and not my white ones — who would kneel down to embrace me in a warm and all-encompassing hug when I was upset. My first kiss was from a Mexican boy. My second, a black one. I never thought to worry about differences. They were just boys.
I wonder what it was that has made me the way I am, considering all of the vile things I heard around dinner table as I grew up. My brother and I would silently stare at one another as our father and grandfather went on another tangent about black people, not daring to speak up and say that our own best friends were black and Mexican for fear of being yelled at and berated. Some strange current ran through my brother and I and consequently, did the opposite of what I believe our father intended — instead of hating those of other races, we were drawn to them. When my mother left our family, it was a Mexican family that took me in and finished raising me. I always had a hot meal there, and clean bed to lay my head down in. My brother was the guest and subsequent “adopted son” of a black family, and I wonder what my father thought of that. The family that took my brother in was at my brother’s wedding, the son of that family standing as my brother’s Best Man. And I bet my father kept his racist remarks to himself that day. Because you know, it just doesn’t do to be a racist in public.
But the truth is, although I grew up hearing those words and seeing those judgments, I have no idea what it is like to grow up with real prejudice. I am a white woman and as such, I don’t experience what black women experience. I don’t know what they go through. I can read about it and they can tell me, but I don’t know how they feel. I am married to a brown Muslim man and I experience my own brand of prejudices from others, and I worry for my son who is not only half white and half brown — but does not have a declared religion. But it’s funny, I don’t worry about my other two children — the white ones. I don’t worry that they could be shot just for being out late and wearing a hoodie. And I don’t think I ever even thought about not worrying about those things until I read Jodi Picoult’s book, Small Great Things. The reality is — I never thought about those things until I, myself, gave birth to a child of color.
I will tell you, I am not a cryer. Emotion does not bubble in me while watching movies or reading books. That is not to say that I don’t feel things, because I feel them deeply, but I am adept at categorizing reality and fiction in my mind and plowing through things subjectively. But the problem with this book was that the fiction WAS fact, and as a result, I was sobbing within the first ten pages. And I sobbed many other times: as the author slipped into the skin of a black woman targeted for the color of her skin, as a man lost his son, as an attorney struggled to navigate the murky waters of nature versus nurture. This was not an easy book to get through.
” At Dalton, there was one table at lunch where all the Black kids sat, except me. Once, another scholarship student of color invited me to join them for lunch. I said thanks, but I usually spent that time tutoring a white friend who didn’t understand trig. This was not the truth. The truth was that the Black table made my white friends nervous, because even if they’d sat down there with me, they would have been tolerated but not welcomed. In a world where they always fit in, the one place they didn’t chafed hard.
The other truth was that if I sat with the other kids of color, I couldn’t pretend I was different from them. When Mr. Adamson, my history teacher, started talking about Martin Luther King and kept looking at me, my white friends shrugged it off: He didn’t mean it that way. At the Black table, if one student talked about Mr. Adamson staring at her during that same lesson, another African American student would validate the experience: That totally happened to me, too.
I so badly wanted to blend in in high school that I surrounded myself with people who could convince me that if I felt like I was being singled out because of the color of my skin, I was making things up, overthinking, being ridiculous.
There was no Black table in the cafeteria at the hospital. There were a handful of janitors of color, and one or two doctors, and me. “
Ruth Jefferson is damn good at her job. As a labor and delivery nurse for twenty years and counting, she has seen and coached mothers through just about everything. The hospital she works at revolves around a near skeleton crew with only a handful of nurses on duty at any given time and if she’s being honest, anyone would be hard-pressed to find another nurse on that crew who knows more than Ruth does about birth.
While routinely checking in on a new mom and her baby, Ruth precedes with the exam like it’s just another day. She tries to ignore the strange vibe in the room and focus solely on the new life that’s in her arms — checking his breathing, his skin, the swirls in his hair. When she listens to his heart she can hear a slight murmur and while that is not especially uncommon, she makes a note to have the pediatrician look the little one over. But when she goes to place the baby back into his mother’s waiting arms in hopes of helping the little one to nurse, she is met with something unexpected — the father wants to see her supervisor, immediately.
Turk is a new father. He’s also a white supremacist. The shock that stole his voice the moment the black nurse walked in and took his baby from his wife Brit’s arms has now worn away and he is ready to take a stance. How dare this woman touch his baby? After speaking harshly with her supervisor, he is pleased to have the black nurse removed from baby Davis’s care, and settles in for the night with his wife and beautiful baby boy.
The next time Turk sees this black nurse, she is standing over his dead son, her hands pressing down so hard onto his chest that she will leave bruises.
The Post-It note glared at Ruth when she read it. “No African American Personnel To Care For This Patient.” Left alone with baby Davis while the other two nurses on call rush off to assist with an emergency C-section, Ruth gazes down into the little one’s face. It’s then that she realizes he is turning an alarming shade of blue, but she. . . hesitates. She’s been told not to touch this baby, and doing so may cause her to lose her job. Her job is the only way that her household is supported; her husband died in Afghanistan when their son was a young boy, and she has her son’s looming college tuition upon her. But at the end of the day, Ruth is a nurse, and be damned some Post-It note. She tries to revive the boy but when she hears someone coming, she wraps him back up and stands there as still as stone. Doing. . . nothing. Per the explicit instructions her supervisor gave her.
It doesn’t matter that moments later, the room is full of staff all trying their best to save this newborn. It doesn’t matter that Ruth’s supervisor ordered her to act and she is now performing compressions to try and coax the baby’s heart into filling with blood and pumping new life into his veins. Baby Davis is gone, flown away to Heaven, and Turk knows exactly who to blame — the black nurse who murdered his son in cold blood.
” I start making a list in my head, of all the things I will never get to do with my son: see him smile for the first time. Celebrate his first Christmas. Get him a BB gun. Give him advice to ask a girl out. Milestones. But the road of parenthood, for me, has been wiped clean of landmarks.
Suddenly Francis is standing in front of me with the shovel. I swallow hard, take it, and become the first person to start to bury my child. After pushing a scoop of dirt into the rip in the ground, I jam the shovel into the earth again. Tom Metzger helps Brit lift it, her hands shaking, and do her part.
I know I’m supposed to stand vigil while everyone else here helps to put Davis underground. But I’m too busy fighting the urge to dive into that tiny pit. To shovel the dirt out with my bare hands. To lift the casket, to pry it open, to save my baby. I’m holding myself in check so hard that my body is vibrating with effort. “
The letter that comes in the mail tells Ruth that she is officially suspended from her job, but the sting of showing up the morning before and being told by her supervisor that she is about to be escorted from the premises was what bit the sharpest. She didn’t kill that baby. And she didn’t wish him dead. But maybe she did think that the baby was better off in Heaven than being raised by the terrible people he would have called Mom and Dad. It doesn’t take long for the law to come calling — and at 3 a.m., after they break down her door and put her Honor Student son in handcuffs, she is dragged away to jail in her nightgown. It is in that nightgown that she will face a judge and a room full of people at her arraignment. This is where she will literally be spit on and demoralized. And it is where Kennedy McQuarrie will feel a bond with Ruth deep within her gut.
She didn’t become an attorney for the money, and there certainly isn’t any to be found in the public defender’s office. Kennedy is lucky that her hotshot doctor of a husband pays the bills and encourages her to follow what her heart tells her is right. She’s a mother to a quirky little girl who covets Cinderella and Princess Tiana. She is the daughter of a supportive mother. Her world is pretty normal, by most people’s standards. Until Ruth shows up, that is, and forces Kennedy into asking herself the hard questions — the ones about race.
But the case can’t be about race. Playing the race card makes the case a veritable suicide mission. As Kennedy explains this to Ruth, the suspended and humiliated nurse can feel the snakes of anger writhing and shaking in the bowels of her stomach. Not about race? How could this case not — at it’s very core — be about race? But with no money coming in to pay for an attorney of her choosing and the prospect of serious jail time for the serious charge of murder against her, Ruth feels she has no choice but to follow the lines Kennedy is drawing for her in the fickle grains of sand they are both standing on. Not equal, but both standing. Ruth must choose to allow trust to grow between herself and Kennedy, as her very life of freedom hangs in the balance.
” I am wide awake now, being dragged in my nightgown and slippers down my porch steps so that I stumble and scrape my knee on the pavement before I am pushed headfirst into the back of a police car. I pray to God that someone will remember to cut my son’s hands loose. I pray to God that my neighbors, who have been awakened by the hullaballoo in our sleepy neighborhood at 3:00 A.M., and who stand in their doorways with their white faces reflecting in the moon, will ask themselves one day why they remained dead silent, not a single one asking if there was anything they could to to help. “
Small Great Things is a book that I give a rare 5 out of 5 stars to. I was deeply moved by this book as the author led us down three parallel paths, slipping into the skin of each character as if it were her very own : the black nurse Ruth, the white supremacist Turk, and the white defensive attorney Kennedy. Each player had a clear voice and believe it or not, readers will find themselves being both angered by and feeling sympathy for all three. I was wrapped up in this story by the end of the first chapter and although it was difficult to get through at times, especially when Ruth describes certain deliveries she has been involved with, I am so glad that I finished it out to the end. Martin Luther King once said that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way,” and this is the underlying mantra of the book.
I recommend this book to any lovers of a storyline you can sink your teeth into or readers who enjoy meaty characters that they can grow with. I guarantee you will not put this book down at it’s completion and not feel as if you have learned something from it. With a rich set of detained backstories for each character and a truthful light shown on their day-to-day lives, readers will become attached and feel what they feel. This book is not for the faint of heart — so have some tissues handy.