Literature highlighting the latent racism hidden amongst even the most liberal of the white population in the United States is especially relevant during a time when the slogan “Make America Great Again” appears to be code for “Make America White Again”. With a self proclaimed white supremacist stashed near President Trump’s ear, the rest of us, no matter which way we voted, need to be vigilant against any attempts to reinstitute laws which are discriminatory. Already there is a cry out against what is referred to as the “New Jim Crow Laws” as our citizens of color march under the banner “Black Lives Matter”.
Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult examines the life of Ruth Anderson, a maternity nurse who lives a comfortable life style in an upscale neighborhood in Connecticut, the widow of an American war veteran and the mother of an outstanding sophomore attending a prestigious high school. (Did I mention that she is black?)
Her entire life changes when a young couple is horrified that a black woman is touching their newborn son and she is asked to step away and refrain from interacting with the tiny babe. Yet, shit happens, and Ruth finds herself alone with the infant when he stops breathing, choosing to resuscitate the limp form but stepping back as soon as she hears help arriving. Asked to start chest compressions while the doctor does his due diligence, little Davis still dies. The parents threaten to sue for negligence, but the hospital lawyer sees Ruth as an easy target and redirects their energies in her direction.
It’s at this point Ruth’s life becomes surreal as she is relieved of her duties at the hospital, loses her nursing license, and finds herself being dragged off to jail in the middle of the night wearing nothing but a nightgown. Out of a job and refusing to touch Edison’s College Fund, Ruth relies on a public defender to plead her case as she slings burgers at McDonalds to make ends meet. Her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white woman, pursues the case for altruistic motives but discovers her own hidden biases as she becomes aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) forms discrimination takes in a society geared towards the needs of a white clientele.
Moving back and forth between the points of view of the three main characters – Turk (Davis’ father), Kennedy, and Ruth – the plot advances through the trial and its aftermath with an epilogue that also hints at future events.
Jodi Piccoult takes on a heavy topic which is made more difficult since she is white and can only empathize with the black community through second hand experiences. Yet Piccoult’s popularity provides a vehicle to explore a sensitive issue which has been ignored for way too long. Based on some real experiences, the author takes a few liberties and at times stretches our sense of credibility, although this longish story is absolutely readable and engrossing on many levels, despite the too convenient ending. Its almost instant popularity guarantees a wide readership and will perhaps open some eyes to many of the daily mishaps experienced by our neighbors who were not lucky enough to be born into a life of privilege based simply on skin color. Of equal importance is a glance into the white supremacist movement, analyzing the various motivations and strategies used by an ever present segment of our society.
Four stars and a thank you to both Netgalley and the author, through Goodreads, for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.