XXTRA Book Club: Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things is a fictional novel based on a real-life event that happened in Flint, Michigan. In 2013, a nurse sued a hospital for asking her to discontinue her care for an infant after the child’s father requested that he did not want any African American nurses tending to his son. After this conversation, another nurse was assigned to watch the child, and a note which stated, “No African American nurse to take care of baby” was placed in the assignment clipboard.

Picoult uses this true event as a backdrop and expands upon it to tell a story narrated by the four main characters of the book: Ruth Jefferson, Turk and Brittany Bauer, and Kennedy McQuarrie. In Picoult’s story, Ruth Jefferson is the African American nurse asked to suspend her care for baby Davis, the son of Turk and Brittany Bauer, who are white supremacists.

Ruth’s plea to give baby Davis special attention due to a minor heart murmur is overshadowed by the parent’s disdain for her, and their attempt to exclude her from caring for their son. The hospital complies to the preferences of the Bauer family, which assigns another nurse to the baby, and orders Ruth not to interact with the child.

However, Ruth finds herself in a tough predicament when the infant stops breathing, and she is the only nurse in the room that can save his life. Ruth must decide to adhere to her supervisor’s orders or observe her moral integrity as a nurse to faithfully care for patients. The outcome of Ruth’s decision ultimately results in a criminal case against her, which introduces the fourth main character, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender. The story outlines the events preceding and during the court trial, as all the characters face uncertainty of their own beliefs on racism and prejudice.

Notably, Small Great Things depicts an adequate portrayal of racial tensions in America and sparks a much-needed conversation about racism. Though, it is obvious that Picoult is targeting a certain audience and hoping to convey a sense of deep introspection on the role it plays in racism. There is nothing wrong with this. This dialogue is necessary in eradicating racism. However, it is clear there is a specific message the author wants to express, and at times the story lacks authenticity when forced to stick with this narrative.

Yet, it is through the development of the character Turk where Picoult truly excels. The author did plenty research to create a visual image that allowed the reader to realize the complexity of the character. In one chapter, the reader can feel compassion for the painful experiences Turk endures, and then contempt for his foolish beliefs in another. For this reason, it is simple to understand why Turk cherishes his beliefs in white supremacy and makes certain decisions.

On the other hand, Picoult is a little unsuccessful in her characterization of Ruth. Despite her best efforts, Picoult’s voice and perspective are that of a woman who is not black.  The essence of the story is foreign to her and the disconnect is noticeable.  Picoult says she consulted with several black women to attempt to understand life as someone who is both black and female.  This may explain why there are moments when Ruth, and the minor characters in her life, tend to include every aspect of blackness. As if Picoult was attempting to address every discriminatory experience black women face in one story and it seems a bit contrived.

Overall, the comprehensive story of Small Great Things makes for a good read. It provides a satisfying portrayal of the various layers of racism and the roles everyone plays in its perpetuation in society. The ending is completely unexpected, and almost improbable. As such, the reader will be left with several questions afterwards. Nonetheless, the book has a compelling storyline and will command your attention throughout.


This article was written by XXTRA contributing writer, Vanessa Williams, and do not necessarily reflect the views of XXTRA.