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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

A Small Great Things review, a book by Jodi Picoult about racism in AmericaAlmost exactly three years ago, I read my first Jodi Picoult book.

It was her newest book, Leaving Time, and I was a little underwhelmed (you can read my full review here).

I didn’t dislike it, I just wasn’t swept away enough to put more of her books on my to-read list when it was already overflowing.

But then in the last round of Tell Me What to Read, three separate people recommended her newest title, Small Great Things, and so I put a hold on the audio version from my library.

When it came up some six or eight weeks later, I started listening and almost immediately, I was sucked in.

I didn’t even know what the book was about, so I went into it with zero expectations.

The story follows three characters.

First, you have Ruth Jefferson. She’s a labor and delivery nurse with two decades of experience and an excellent bedside manner.

She’s a military widow, raising her teenage son on her own (and doing a pretty darn good job of it – he’s an honor student on track to go to college).

She’s also African-American.

Then, there is Turk Bauer. He and his wife are having their first baby and they cannot wait.

They’re also white supremacists.

As you can imagine, they are not thrilled (understatement of the century) when Ruth appears in their hospital room to check on their brand-new baby.

They request that Ruth be removed as a care provider for their baby because they don’t want anyone “like her” touching their baby.

This might have been over once Bauers left the hospital never to see Ruth again, except that the next day, the Bauers’ baby goes into cardiac arrest and dies.

And, of course, the only person in the hospital nursery when it happens is Ruth, who was under orders from her supervisor not to touch the baby.

Which brings the third person into the story.

Kennedy McQuarrie.

She’s a white public defender and she’s assigned to Ruth’s case.

Because the Bauers are suing Ruth for the murder of their child.

So pretty quickly, you have the stage set for a high-stakes trial that is getting a fair amount of publicity.

For Kennedy, this is her first murder trial and really wants to win it. And she’s pretty sure that bringing race into the case is going to turn the jury against Ruth – she is anxious to convince Ruth not to bring race into it.

Ruth is conflicted by her desire to not spend the next years in prison and her desire to speak out against the racism, both blatant and subtle, that have been a part of her life from the moment she was born.

There’s a lot going on in this story and Jodi Picoult does a masterful job weaving it all together. You have Ruth and Kennedy’s relationship, as they both see new sides of racial issues that they hadn’t been aware of before. Ruth is struggling with her relationship with her mother who has spent fifty years as a maid and cook for a white family, and she’s also trying to deal with her son who, as you can imagine, is not responding well to his mother being accused of murder.

Kennedy is trying to make sense of this case – what’s the balance between doing the right thing and not losing her case (and landing her client in prison)? Plus, she’s being forced to see how very different her world is as a white woman than it is for Ruth as a black woman, despite the fact that they live in the same neighborhood, both work as seasoned professionals, and are mothers to children they love deeply.

You also get a lot of Turk’s background and how he’s become the angry racist he is now.

I knew from my last Jodi Picoult reading that she’s not afraid of some intense language, and that’s certainly the case here. The chapters from Turk’s point of view had a fair amount of swearing and many deeply offensive views on non-white groups. Consider yourself warned before you pick it up.

The audio version is pretty exceptional (I saw after the fact that it won the 2017 Audie Award for a Multi-Voiced Performance and I can’t argue) too, and I remembered again how much I love listening to a book that makes me want to fold laundry.

I’ve read several books about racism in American this year, including The Hate U Give and Dreamland Burning, and this one addressed some really interesting issues, particularly how white Americans think about and deal with racism (especially those of us who, like Kennedy, want to think we aren’t racist and “don’t even see color.”).

One thing that really stood out to me was about how African-American parents talk to their children about race all the time, whereas white parents rarely do.

And how if you asked a white person to list off some of their defining characteristics, the fact that they are white would almost never be one of them – because it’s the default in America, we hardly even think about the fact that we’re white, even though being white drastically changes what our life looks like in ways we don’t even notice or acknowledge.

This is one of those books I desperately wish I still had my Austin book club to discuss it with.

Small Great Things is being made into a movie with Viola Davis and Julia Roberts as the stars, and I’m really interested to see how it turns out (I don’t think they’ve even started production yet, so it’ll be a while until it’s released).

After I read Leaving Time, I said that I didn’t think that I was necessarily going to be running out to read more of her books, but after Small Great Things, I’m dying to read something else of hers. Any suggestions on which other ones to pick up?

Also, if you have other suggestions about books that deal with race in America, I’m all ears.

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26 Comments

  • Reply Alyson R November 10, 2017 at 3:44 am

    Sounds intriguing. The older novel, My Sister’s Keeper, was my first introduction to her. I’m not an avid reader and this one got me. As a parent it’s a complete tear-jerker and full of moral dilemmas. In my book club we debated whether or not we would come to the same decisions and outcome as the parents. It made for a complex discussion of realities.

  • Reply Jenna November 10, 2017 at 4:57 am

    My first — and favorite — Jodi Picoult book is PLAIN TRUTH about a baby’s death in Amish Country. I was new to the multiple voice concept then, so it was surprisingly delightful. AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read yet 🙂 ) deals with the immigrant experience. My Kenyan husband found it a very accurate assessment of life in America. And lastly, I know this isn’t a tell me what to read post, per se, but I will, anyway. BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY (recommended by Mel of Mel’s Kitchen) is an astonishingly true WWII story.

  • Reply Rachel November 10, 2017 at 5:55 am

    The Pact and Plain Truth are also really good. I’m a fan of Jodi Picoult, her books always suck me in, but I’ll be honest- Small Great Things really rises above the rest.

  • Reply Susan November 10, 2017 at 6:47 am

    I have a book suggestion! It’s called Reading with Patrick. It’s written by a friend of mine from when I was younger. I’m going to link to the book on Amazon because it will do a better job summarizing. The book is exceptional. I couldn’t put it down. https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Patrick-Teacher-Life-Changing-Friendship/dp/081299731X

  • Reply shokufeh November 10, 2017 at 7:48 am

    This is her most important book. I love that she used her platform in this way.
    A book I’ve read multiple times with several groups is Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” It’s narrative non-fiction and provides great insight into our country. Several (masters) students liked it so much that they gave it as gifts to family members and still bring up aspects of it a couple of years later.

  • Reply Susan November 10, 2017 at 8:31 am

    Also this post on the blog Cup of Jo was eye opening about talking to your kids about race. My 3 yr old and I subsequently read some picture books about race. https://cupofjo.com/2016/10/raising-race-conscious-children/

  • Reply Dawn Mottlow November 10, 2017 at 8:43 am

    The Storyteller is an excellent read.

    • Reply Lisa November 10, 2017 at 4:21 pm

      I second The Storyteller!

  • Reply Torrie November 10, 2017 at 11:54 am

    I abandoned this one about 30 pages in—it just sickened me too much, and it hit too many triggers for me, though it sounds like it was phenomenally done from everyone who has read it. It was interesting to get this much of an insight into the story thought! I didn’t realize that this was the direction the book eventually took.

  • Reply Melanie November 10, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    Jodi Piccoult is my favorite author! Nineteen Minutes & Plain Truth are a few favorites. I love them all, really.

  • Reply Brittany Reed November 10, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    I have read maybe four other Jodi Picoult books and have been underwhelmed by all of them except for Small Great Things. I just thought it was so well done. But based on what I know abouut your reading preferences, I’m not totally sure you’d love her other books. (Does reading your blog make me an expert on your reading preferences? I sort of feel like it does. Haha)

  • Reply Whitney November 10, 2017 at 2:21 pm

    I read The Storyteller…and didn’t like it. Probably similar to your experience with her first. This one sounds interesting and timely, I just don’t know if I can do it or if my opinion will be laced with my prior unfavorable bias.
    Also if you started a book club in Arizona, (or found a good one), I would totally join (and be happy to drive 45 minutes for it). So…just let me know when!

  • Reply Britt November 10, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    The Storyteller and Handle with Care are books that I still think about! Also Nineteen Minutes is a good one.

  • Reply Malisa November 10, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    I’ve read most of her books and have loved most of them, too. I agree Small Great Things is so timely!

    Others I’ve loved are The Storyteller (so haunting, and actually very graphic in some parts, but very good), Mercy, and Plain Truth.

    I recently read Leaving Time as well and got pretty into it, and somehow did not see the twist at the end!

  • Reply Stefanie hathaway November 10, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Small Great Things is Exceptional. I want to listen to the audio now! Great synopsis- I was curious to see how you could ever put this book into a blog post, and you did it quite well! I loved Plain Truth and My Sisters Keeper, her stories feel very similar to each other, but Jodi definitely does her research and every book leaves me feeling more educated and questioning my own morals.

  • Reply Emily Leach November 11, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Nineteen Minutes is a one of my personal favorites of hers. When Small Great Things was released, I was lucky enough to go see her speak about her reserarch and experiences while writing the book. It was very powerful. If you ever get the chance to see her, jump at it!

  • Reply Anne November 11, 2017 at 7:39 am

    Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson and The Warmth Of Other Suns : The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson are both fabulous.

  • Reply maria November 11, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    Not a huge Jody fan, however, I listened to this one and thought it was timely and well done. I didn’t know about the movie. What character is Julia Roberts playing? I would think she’s too old for Kennedy ?

  • Reply Lea R. November 12, 2017 at 8:41 am

    Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum – great sociology/psychology book on race.

  • Reply Karla November 12, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    I second Americanah, I laughed out loud quite a few times. I would also recommend Between the World and Me- super compelling as it’s a father writing a letter to his son.

  • Reply Jen November 14, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    I grabbed Leaving Time at an airport bookstore last year and really couldn’t get into it. I’m pretty sure I still haven’t finished it. I liked The Storyteller and Small Great Things too! Those are pretty much the only ones I’ve read of hers!

  • Reply elizabeth November 16, 2017 at 11:48 am

    I listened to this book about six months ago, and one thing that you forgot to mention (which may sway some people) is that the voice of Ruth is the fabulous Audra McDonald. All of the narrators are good, but she is EXCEPTIONAL. I would listen to any book she’d read. Also, I listened to another book this year narrated by the (also very fabulous) Mariska Hargitay, and now I also want HER to read all my books to me. Narrators are really important, is what i’m saying!

  • Reply Emily Wilfong November 16, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    All of hers are so fantastic. She is my favorite author for sure. I loved Nineteen Minutes, The Storyteller, Handle with Care, The Pact, Plain Truth and of course Small Great Things….like I said they are fantastic and suck you in. And the endings; always a twist!

  • Reply Julia November 17, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a must read!

  • Reply Gabbi November 17, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    She is my favorite author for the way she writes about challenging subjects from points of view you may not have thought about. The way she writes, the language and words she chooses, the phrasing – it haunts you and leaves you thinking long after you’ve stopped reading. I’ve read every single book of hers so many times that the covers are falling off. My favorites are Songs of the Humpback Whale, Mercy, and Second Glance. I think you might also enjoy Change of Heart.

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