Small Great Things: A Novel

Small Great Things: A Novel

by Jodi Picoult
Small Great Things: A Novel

Small Great Things: A Novel

by Jodi Picoult

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • With richly layered characters and a gripping moral dilemma that will lead readers to question everything they know about privilege, power, and race, Small Great Things is the stunning new page-turner from Jodi Picoult.

SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE

“[Picoult] offers a thought-provoking examination of racism in America today, both overt and subtle. Her many readers will find much to discuss in the pages of this topical, moving book.”—Booklist (starred review)

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

Praise for Small Great Things

Small Great Things is the most important novel Jodi Picoult has ever written. . . . It will challenge her readers . . . [and] expand our cultural conversation about race and prejudice.”The Washington Post

“A novel that puts its finger on the very pulse of the nation that we live in today . . . a fantastic read from beginning to end, as can always be expected from Picoult, this novel maintains a steady, page-turning pace that makes it hard for readers to put down.”San Francisco Book Review


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345544971
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/20/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 13,590
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.40(d)
Lexile: HL800L (what's this?)

About the Author

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-five novels, including Small Great Things, Leaving Time, The Storyteller, Lone Wolf, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, and My Sister’s Keeper. She is also the author, with daughter Samantha van Leer, of two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.

Hometown:

Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:

May 19, 1966

Place of Birth:

Nesconset, Long Island, NY

Education:

A.B. in Creative Writing, Princeton University; M.A. in Education, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

Stage One: Early Labor

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.
—Benjamin Franklin 


Ruth

The miracle happened on West Seventy-fourth Street, in the home where Mama worked. It was a big brownstone encircled by a wrought-iron fence, and overlooking either side of the ornate door were gargoyles, their granite faces carved from my nightmares. They terrified me, so I didn’t mind the fact that we always entered through the less impressive side door, whose keys Mama kept on a ribbon in her purse.

Mama had been working for Sam Hallowell and his family since before my sister and I were born. You may not have recognized his name, but you would have known him the minute he said hello. He had been the unmistakable voice in the mid-1960s who announced before every show: The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC! In 1976, when the miracle happened, he was the network’s head of programming. The doorbell beneath those gargoyles was the famously pitched three-note chime everyone associates with NBC. Sometimes, when I came to work with my mother, I’d sneak outside and push the button and hum along.

The reason we were with Mama that day was because it was a snow day. School was canceled, but we were too little to stay alone in our apartment while Mama went to work—which she did, through snow and sleet and probably also earthquakes and Armageddon. She muttered, stuffing us into our snowsuits and boots, that it didn’t matter if she had to cross a blizzard to do it, but God forbid Ms. Mina had to spread the peanut butter on her own sandwich bread. In fact the only time I remember Mama taking time off work was twenty-five years later, when she had a double hip replacement, generously paid for by the Hallowells. She stayed home for a week, and even after that, when it didn’t quite heal right and she insisted on returning to work, Mina found her tasks to do that kept her off her feet. But when I was little, during school vacations and bouts of fever and snow days like this one, Mama would take us with her on the B train downtown.

Mr. Hallowell was away in California that week, which happened often, and which meant that Ms. Mina and Christina needed Mama even more. So did Rachel and I, but we were better at taking care of ourselves, I suppose, than Ms. Mina was.

When we finally emerged at Seventy-second Street, the world was white. It was not just that Central Park was caught in a snow globe. The faces of the men and women shuddering through the storm to get to work looked nothing like mine, or like my cousins’ or neighbors’.

I had not been into any Manhattan homes except for the Hallowells’, so I didn’t know how extraordinary it was for one family to live, alone, in this huge building. But I remember thinking it made no sense that Rachel and I had to put our snowsuits and boots into the tiny, cramped closet in the kitchen, when there were plenty of empty hooks and open spaces in the main entry, where Christina’s and Ms. Mina’s coats were hanging. Mama tucked away her coat, too, and her lucky scarf—the soft one that smelled like her, and that Rachel and I fought to wear around our house because it felt like petting a guinea pig or a bunny under your fingers. I waited for Mama to move through the dark rooms like Tinker Bell, alighting on a switch or a handle or a knob so that the sleeping beast of a house was gradually brought to life. “You two be quiet,” Mama told us, “and I’ll make you some of Ms. Mina’s hot chocolate.”

It was imported from Paris, and it tasted like heaven. So as Mama tied on her white apron, I took a piece of paper from a kitchen drawer and a packet of crayons I’d brought from home and silently started to sketch. I made a house as big as this one. I put a family inside: me, Mama, Rachel. I tried to draw snow, but I couldn’t. The flakes I’d made with the white crayon were invisible on the paper. The only way to see them was to tilt the paper sideways toward the chandelier light, so I could make out the shimmer where the crayon had been.

“Can we play with Christina?” Rachel asked. Christina was six, falling neatly between the ages of Rachel and me. Christina had the biggest bedroom I had ever seen and more toys than anyone I knew. When she was home and we came to work with our mother, we played school with her and her teddy bears, drank water out of real miniature china teacups, and braided the corn-silk hair of her dolls. Unless she had a friend over, in which case we stayed in the kitchen and colored.

But before Mama could answer, there was a scream so piercing and so ragged that it stabbed me in the chest. I knew it did the same to Mama, because she nearly dropped the pot of water she was carrying to the sink. “Stay here,” she said, her voice already trailing behind her as she ran upstairs.

Rachel was the first one out of her chair; she wasn’t one to follow instructions. I was drawn in her wake, a balloon tied to her wrist. My hand skimmed over the banister of the curved staircase, not touching.

Ms. Mina’s bedroom door was wide open, and she was twisting on the bed in a sinkhole of satin sheets. The round of her belly rose like a moon; the shining whites of her eyes made me think of merry-go-round horses, frozen in flight. “It’s too early, Lou,” she gasped.

“Tell that to this baby,” Mama replied. She was holding the telephone receiver. Ms. Mina held her other hand in a death grip. “You stop pushing, now,” she said. “The ambulance’ll be here any minute.” I wondered how fast an ambulance could get here in all that snow.

“Mommy?”

It wasn’t until I heard Christina’s voice that I realized the noise had woken her up. She stood between Rachel and me. “You three, go to Miss Christina’s room,” Mama ordered, with steel in her voice. “Now.” But we remained rooted to the spot as Mama quickly forgot about us, lost in a world made of Ms. Mina’s pain and fear, trying to be the map that she could follow out of it. I watched the cords stand out on Ms. Mina’s neck as she groaned; I saw Mama kneel on the bed between her legs and push her gown over her knees. I watched the pink lips between Ms. Mina’s legs purse and swell and part. There was the round knob of a head, a knot of shoulder, a gush of blood and fluid, and suddenly, a baby was cradled in Mama’s palms.

“Look at you,” she said, with love written over her face. “Weren’t you in a hurry to get into this world?”

Two things happened at once: the doorbell rang, and Christina started to cry. “Oh, honey,” Ms. Mina crooned, not scary anymore but still sweaty and red-faced. She held out her hand, but Christina was too terrified by what she had seen, and instead she burrowed closer to me. Rachel, ever practical, went to answer the front door. She returned with two paramedics, who swooped in and took over, so that what Mama had done for Ms. Mina became like everything else she did for the Hallowells: seamless and invisible.

The Hallowells named the baby Louis, after Mama. He was fine, even though he was almost a full month early, a casualty of the barometric pressure dropping with the storm, which caused a PROM—a premature rupture of membranes. Of course, I didn’t know that back then. I only knew that on a snowy day in Manhattan I had seen the very start of someone. I’d been with that baby before anyone or anything in this world had a chance to disappoint him.

The experience of watching Louis being born affected us all differently. Christina had her baby via surrogate. Rachel had five. Me, I became a labor and delivery nurse.

When I tell people this story, they assume the miracle I am referring to during that long-ago blizzard was the birth of a baby. True, that was astonishing. But that day I witnessed a greater wonder. As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama’s, there was a moment— one heartbeat, one breath—where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another.

That miracle, I’ve spent thirty-nine years waiting to see again.

Reading Group Guide

A Conversation Between Jodi Picoult and Celeste Ng, Author of Everything I Never Told You


Celeste Ng: How has this book changed you as a writer? As a reader?

Jodi Picoult: To be honest, this book made me take a good hard look at myself and not find a very flattering portrait. I’d spent nearly fifty years of my life not talking about racism . . . because I don’t have to. I would never have considered myself a racist. And yet, doing research for this book involved looking into my own beliefs and actions and finding myself ignorant. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t a white nationalist— but I also hadn’t really considered what it might mean to be a person of color; what historical and current struggles are faced; what it means to not find representation in everything from literature to television to publishing contracts to police departments. I came to see that inaction is an action, too, and not one I was particularly proud of. I had to not just learn about the privileges I have that come with white skin—I had to own them, and to ask myself what I could do now with this knowledge that might make the world more equitable for those who were not born white. Every day, since writing this book, dismantling racism is part of my consciousness, my dialogue with others, and my actions.

CN: You have discussed the importance of reading books by writers of color. What authors top that list for you?

JP: So many! Toni Morrison is, of course, the queen of all things literary. I heard her read from Beloved as a work in progress and it nearly stopped me dead. Other favorites: Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, Nicola Yoon, Brit Bennett, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Jason Reynolds, Zadie Smith, Cristina Henríquez, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Ellen Oh, Sabaa Tahir, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Lisa See . . . and Celeste Ng. (And, no, I’m not just saying that because you asked the question. I really, really, really have been a fan for a while, and your new novel knocks it out of the park.)

CN: Has anything about readers’ reactions to the book been a surprise for you?

JP: I was expecting a lot more criticism from the African American community than I received. I thought there might be a lot of side-eye for a white author writing about racism—after all, there is an argument to be made that it’s not my story to tell. Believe me, I thought a lot about that before writing the book, because cultural appropriation is a real and awful thing. Ultimately I had to ask myself why I was writing the book: Was it to profit off someone else’s pain? Or was it to tell a story to people who look like me, and the best way to do that was to use a voice of color? I did so much research and worked with sensitivity readers to “get it right” when I was writing Ruth’s voice, and I guess it paid off, because to a fault, the African American readers who have contacted me have said that the voice of Ruth was spot on, and that they themselves had experienced acts of microaggression as had Ruth. And then they’d tell me their stories. One woman, I remember, had been a sign language interpreter in a white church. She had to sit across from the front row and sign, and a white elderly woman said out loud, “Can you make her stop? I can’t look at her black face anymore.” And this reader had to sign those words. Imagine the humiliation she must have felt, and then she had to get up and go to work the next day again. The stories I heard from my African American readers brought me to tears. It reminded me why I so badly wanted to write this book—so that more white people would see what they’ve been ignoring. Another reaction that surprised me: there was a young African American in LA who stood up and started to cry because she had been a fan for years, but never imagined my main character would look like her. That was pretty humbling. The reactions of white readers have also been interesting. Largely, those who read the book find it uncomfortable, but in a really important way, and realize they have some work to do. The few who have written to critique me and tell me I am wrong, and that we live in a post-racial society, have mostly been white men.
CN: What has the response been from readers in other countries?

JP: Although I think it’s sometimes hard for foreign readers to under- stand the racial climate of America, every country I toured has had their own seedy story of racism. In Canada and Australia it is indigenous people. In the UK, it’s Muslims and, interestingly, white people who were not born in the UK, thanks to the Brexit vote. So even what seems to be a very “American” story has had resonance in their own lives and their own spaces.

CN: Do you feel that where we are as a culture regarding race and racism is different now from where it was when you started writing this novel?

JP: Yes, but not in a positive way. I believe that the Trump candidacy was built on divisiveness and racial stereotyping, and the presidency seems to be continuing in that direction. I know of many friends of mine, people of color, who were the victims of active racism in the days after the election—from nooses being hung in their yards to signs left on the lawn saying “Go back where you came from.” I hope that everyone who reads Small Great Things will make the active attempt to do at least one “small great thing” that will support a person of color in their community, whether that is making them feel wanted and welcome, or writing to a congressman to oppose legislation, or working on an up- coming political campaign, or attending a Black Lives Matter rally. The options are endless.

CN: Can you discuss the idea of parenthood as it is reflected in the experience of the three point-of-view characters in the novel?

JP: We parents want the best for our children—whatever it takes. It can be argued that Kennedy, Ruth, and Turk all abide by this standard: from Kennedy trying to sweep “embarrassing” questions about race from her child under the carpet, to Turk’s active persecution of Ruth, to Ruth’s decision to live in a white neighborhood and send Edison to a white school—without any say from Edison himself about what he might want. What I find interesting about the trope of the “good parent” is that although it can create division (as seen in the novel in all three cases), it also can provide the foundation for understanding those who are different from us. Ultimately, what all three characters have in common is that they are parents, and their love for their children causes them to act in a certain way. Parenthood is the great equalizer that cuts across differences and ideologies. Certainly Kennedy’s inter- action to save Edison from his actions toward the end of the novel speaks volumes to Ruth, who has already fired her. And Turk’s change of heart, as well, is motivated by both the death of his child and the birth of a new one, who he doesn’t want to grow up in a life of hate.

CN: You’ve pointed out in several interviews that racism is perpetuated—and dismantled—by individual acts. What are some acts individual readers can do to help combat racism and improve under- standing between different racial groups?

JP: Find a Showing Up for Racial Justice group near you (SURJ). It is a great space for white people to talk about racism and to become allies and activists for people of color. Donate to Black Lives Matter. But on a more personal level, find a way that you can, in your own personal life, make a difference. Maybe you’re a businessman or business- woman—at your next meeting, if you notice that it’s mostly white people talking, turn to someone of color and metaphorically pass the microphone (“We haven’t heard from Sue yet, I’d love to hear her take on this!”). If you have a second grader, go to your child’s teacher and ask if they’re teaching about Heroes of Color this year—or is the entire curriculum about people of color limited to their victimization? If so, help do the research to find examples past Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King of people of color who should be celebrated for their achievements, their inventions, and their words. If you are a reader, check your bookshelf. Are you only reading white authors? Make the conscious effort to read an author of color for every white author you read. Or start a book club that reads authors of color and addresses racial issues through their writing. And if you can, reach across the racial aisle to find people of color who might join your group and offer new and interesting perspectives.

CN: What advice do you have for white readers who want to “have this discussion” about racism among themselves, as you put it in your Author’s Note? How do we start those uncomfortable but important conversations?

JP: Just dive in. Talk about race when there are no people of color around—which is a space in which racism is rarely addressed. Talk about race with your kids at the dinner table. Talk to your 102-year-old grandma who uses racial slurs and explain why she shouldn’t. Now, I know that when you approach someone who thinks differently from you when it comes to racism, and you announce you want to discuss it, things usually go downhill. I suggest finding a book or a movie that has some connection to understanding racism, and going to see it with that person. Then ask questions: “How did you feel when that happened to Character X?” From there, segue into a more broad discussion: “Oh, that reminds me of something that happened in the news!” That way your conversation about racism is organic and a little less confrontational. Look, there are always going to be people who are not ready to listen. But you’ll never know if you don’t try.

CN: Do you think writers have a responsibility to write about social issues? What do you see as the benefits of approaching social issues through fiction?
JP: I think that’s the whole reason for fiction: to get readers to address a topic they might shy away from non-fictionally. You get readers in- vested in characters and plot, and if you do your job right, you leave them thinking about greater issues. I believe that I am lucky to have a platform—people want to read what I write, and hear what I have to say. What a gift that is! For that reason, I’m going to continue to address social issues. If you change even one mind, you’ve made a difference.

CN: You’re active on social media (in fact, we “met” on Twitter). What do you like about using this platform to engage with readers? What challenges has it brought?

JP: I love Twitter because it allows me to be political—to be the human behind the byline, so to speak. I love that social media provides an easy way for my readers to get in touch with me, and for me to thank them for picking up my book in the first place. But of course, Twitter is also full of people whose political views are different from mine. Some write very politely to say they love my books but not my stance on politics; I thank them for reading and tell them they should probably not follow me. Others write horrible racial and homophobic slurs against me and my family—when you write about racism, you attract those who are neo-Nazis, after all. That’s what the block button is for.

CN: Will you write explicitly about race in America again?

JP: I don’t know if I will write explicitly about race again, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. And more important, I think my books— regardless of subject matter—will show more of a rainbow of characters in all races. I’d like them to accurately reflect the world in which I prefer to live.

1. Which of the three main characters (Ruth, Turk, or Kennedy) do you most relate to, and why? Think about what you have in common with the other two characters as well. How can you relate to them?

2. The title of the book comes from the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that Ruth’s mother mentions on p. 173: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” What does this quote mean to you? What are some examples of small great things done by the characters in the novel?

3. Discuss Ruth’s relationship with her sister, Adisa. How does the relationship change over the course of the novel?

4. Kennedy seeks out a neighborhood in which she is the only white person to help her gain some perspective. Can you think of an example of a time when something about your identity made you an outsider? How were you affected by that experience?

5. All of the characters change over the course of the novel, but Turk’s transformation is perhaps the most extreme. What do you think contributed to that change?

6. Discuss the theme of parenthood in the novel. What does being a parent mean to Ruth, to Kennedy, and to Turk? What does it mean to you?

7. Why do you think Ruth lies to Kennedy about touching Davis when he first starts seizing? What would you have done in her position?

8. Why do you think Kennedy decides to take Ruth’s case? What makes it so important to her?

9. Discuss the difference between “equity” and “equality” as Kennedy explains it on p. 427. Do you think Ruth gets equity from the trial?

10. Was your perspective on racism or privilege changed by reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?

11. Did the ending of Small Great Things surprise you? If so, why? Did you envision a different ending?

12. Did the Author’s Note change your reading experience at all?

13. Have you changed anything in your daily life after reading Small Great Things?

14. Who would you recommend Small Great Things to? Why?

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