She just keeps getting better and better, does Jodi Picoult, her novels always relevant and timely. Her title is based on a quote by Martin Luther King Jr - 'If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way'. So not surprising that she is taking on the issue of race. But her novel transcends just the concept of race as being how you are 'labelled'. It goes much deeper, and looks more at the concept of personal identity, way beyond the idea of skin colour being how we are defined and how we define ourselves. It is simply a superb novel, with extremely complex ideas, troublesome to many, that have been woven in into a first class story of present day race relations in the US.
Ruth is a nurse, extremely competent, professional, highly respected, working in a maternity unit of a hospital. She looks after women in labour, during and after the birth, as well as the new born baby. She is also black, proud of how she has made it in the white man's world, intelligent, well educated, at the peak of her career. She is widowed, her husband having died serving his country in Afghanistan, and she is the mother of 16 year old Edison, a top student, also on the path to success.
One day she is working, helping a young couple who have just had their first child. Turk and Brittany Bauer are white supremacists, and take exception to Ruth being the nurse attending to Brittany and the baby. So they insist that she not be allowed to have anything to do with the baby or them. Naturally Ruth is extremely shocked, upset and angry. But it would seem there is nothing she can do about this requirement. In an unfortunate series of events - short staffing basically - the baby dies, and Ruth is blamed for his death.
Suddenly she finds herself arrested, charged with murder, her life completely turned on itself. She is a black woman charged with murdering a white baby. Everything she had ever known about herself, the world she lived in, her life programme, her self belief, her future for her son is going to be ripped away from her. What becomes painfully obvious for Ruth as the novel progresses is that she is and always will be a black woman living in a white person's world. Her life, the life she has made for herself is really just an illusion, her success is 100% defined by how well she has coped with and adapted to the rules, the mores, the culture, the undercurrents, the everything that is the world of the white person. She might think she has successfully entrenched her place in her world, but in fact she hasn't and never will.
Her lawyer is a public defender, a white woman, Kennedy, who also finds herself on a very long and unexpected learning curve; on the flip side, the public prosecutor is a black woman who is also confronted with issues she didn't think she would need to think about. At the centre of all this of course is newborn baby, dead from natural causes or otherwise. And the bereaved parents.
Jodi Picoult is a genius in how she brings all this together, and holds the interest compulsively for 450 plus pages. This will stay with you for ages after, every time there is some race based controversy in our society, or more particularly in the US, you will be reminded of this book, of the message in it. It is good reading - the best reading is that which makes us think, which makes us question, puts us in another person's shoes, and that is what this does.