As a member of Audible books I chose Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult as my monthly listen.
So, I will first of all I will mention how great the narrators were.
They were very believable as the different characters and were also remarkably easy to listen to.
The story itself was a simple one – or so it seemed at first.
A white supremacist man, Turk, is in hospital supporting his wife, Brittany who is in hospital having her first baby,
He narrates his own side of the story and from him we learn the history of his racist beliefs and those of his wife.
Turk and his wife Brittany are an appalling couple who are racist to the point of violence. Turk narrates their history of actively attacking and beating up black or gay people.
In the hospital, Turk angrily complains about the nurse in attendance to her supervisor.
His complaint is not about her work – it is about her color.
The nurse in question is Ruth, who has 20 years experience and is referred to as an excellent nurse and mentor by her colleagues.
But Turk does not want any African-American member of the hospital staff touching his wife or baby.
The supervisor agrees to Turk’s demand and adds a note to this effect to the file.
This is the part of the story that I find both unbelievable and shocking.
I have no experience of living in the US but I would have thought this blatant racism would not be allowed.
The big question for me was if a racist thug would be allowed to dictate hospital policy?
However, believable or not, the story hinges on this and the decision by Ruth’s supervisor to go along with Turks demand places Ruth in an impossible position.
There are not enough staff available when there is an emergency. Ruth is asked by another nurse to keep an eye on Turk and Brittany’s baby following a routine circumcision.
Ruth is understandably uncomfortable to be left alone in the nursery with a baby she is not allowed to nurse.
When the baby stops breathing she finds herself in an impossible position.
Despite being forbidden to touch the baby she attempts resuscitation but tells her supervisor she did nothing. She is afraid of admitting that she touched the baby after being forbidden.
This is another aspect of the story I questioned.
In a case where a baby is going to die, a nurse would surely be allowed to break the ‘no touch’ rule in order to save the baby’s life? Particularly a rule which is racist?
Surely an experienced and excellent nurse like Ruth would know this and take the appropriate action to save a baby’s life?
Why did she then hesitate?
The crash team arrive and attempt resuscitation on the baby but sadly this fails.
Agonized after the baby’s death the distraught and angry Turk goes to the police.
Despite their abhorrent characters it is due to the strength of Jodi Picoult’s writing that we can still sympathize with the couple’s pain on losing a child.
Ruth is charged with murder and is ably defended by a white lawyer, Kennedy, a woman who claims not to see color.
Whether or not this misguided claim makes her a racist is debatable.
However, she does question her own attitudes within the narration and she comes to recognize the insensitivity of her statement.
Ironically, the prosecutor is a black woman who does not see racism as being an issue at all in this case.
The case against Ruth is fought hard from both sides and makes for riveting reading, or listening.
The conclusion of the book takes us beyond the story and into the future. This makes for an ending which is maybe a little too satisfying.
The ends are tied up neatly but possibly a little unbelievably.
I have mentioned some aspects of the book which stretched my own belief in the ‘truth’ of this story.
However, that is not to say that this was not a wonderful book in many respects.
It was so compelling that I can honestly say I found it hard to stop reading/listening.
The overriding theme of racism is explored intelligently.
The whole spectrum of racism is examined – from the explicit and violent racism of Turk and Brittany to the more subtle ways in which racism can affect the perception and progress of black people in the workplace.
I live in Ireland and in some situations this perception is reversed.
If I see a black or Asian person in a hospital I tend to expect them to be the doctor or consultant. This is because they usually are.
However in this book, based in the US, we learn that the reverse can be the case.
Expectations of black people are portrayed as low here and they seem to be experienced through a prism of this expectation.
Black people have to work hard to be ‘seen’ as equal to white people.
Ruth as narrator, expresses a strongly held belief that no white nurse would have found herself in this situation.
It is difficult to know the truth of her belief outside of this story.
If, say a black man had objected to a white nurse, would the hospital have gone along with him and allowed him to dictate policy?
Of course this is a whole other question which in my opinion would make for a fascinating story.
White people like myself are encouraged through reading this book to look within, for those subtle ways in which we may have racist perceptions.
In fact, this seems to be one of the aims of the book.
Introducing such aims to a story means that story must be shaped around these aims.
As a writer I believe that this can affect the readers belief in the truth of the story.
Again, speaking as a writer, I believe that story is more important than such aims.
A totally credible story will provoke such thoughts anyway.
I found I had to bend and stretch my own belief in the particulars and mechanics of this story.
Nevertheless, I would still highly recommend you read ‘Small Great Things.’
It was a debate provoking and intriguing read.
The writing was strong and compelling and despite my misgivings Jodi Picoult’s story still proved very hard to put down.
I would definitely read, or listen to this book again.
P.S. Please be aware that I am an affiliate for the books I write about on this site. This means that if you buy the book I receive a few cents in commission. This helps pay the running costs of the site but does not affect my opinions. I only write about books I have read and enjoyed.