Small Great Things

Small Great Things

Small Great Things Chapter 10, Ruth Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ruth thinks of slavery as, after her arraignment, she's put in chains. Even worse, Edison is watching. Ruth thinks back to how she lied that she didn't touch Davis, but she didn't trust Kennedy and so didn't tell the truth. As soon as the judge agrees to Ruth's bail, Ruth is strong-armed back to her cell. A while later, Kennedy comes and explains that Ruth will go to jail for a few days until her bail is processed. While a guard puts Ruth back in handcuffs, Kennedy tells her to not talk about her charges and to to trust nobody.
For Ruth, being handcuffed and manhandled like this represents an uncomfortable link to the history of how black people have been treated throughout American history—at this point, she's just as helpless. The handcuffs in particular enable the police to dehumanize Ruth and in turn, treat her roughly without feeling bad about it.
Themes
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Theme Icon
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
The guard leads Ruth to a van where another woman sits in chains. She's tall and breathtaking and introduces herself as Liza Lott. When Ruth asks if the name is her real name, Liza looks her in the eye and says it's better than Bruce. Ruth thinks she's seen it all and isn't bothered. Liza says that she's in so often that she should get a punch card and asks Ruth what she's in for. Ruth feigns ignorance, which offends Liza, but the driver says that Ruth's in for murder.
When the driver violates Ruth's privacy and shares why she's in jail, it illustrates how few rights Ruth has at the moment. Liza's answer implies that she is a trans woman who was originally assigned the male name “Bruce.” Ruth clearly does whatever she can to check her own biases and treat people with equal dignity.
Themes
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth remembers how, when she applied to Yale for nursing school, Mama asked her pastor to say an extra prayer for her. Ruth felt undeserving. The day before classes started, Mama took Ruth out to dinner and told her that she was destined to do “small great things” and told her to not forget where she came from. This puzzled Ruth, since Mama had been pushing her to leave and be successful since birth. Every night after class, Ruth told Mama about her day but left out how people on the train to school treated her like a criminal. Eventually, Ruth bought a Yale-branded coffee mug to carry.
The question of what Mama means when she tells Ruth to remember where she came from haunts Ruth throughout much of the novel. It calls Ruth's assessment of her communities into question, as it seems to imply here that Mama doesn't want Ruth to fully integrate into her community at Yale. However, Ruth's experiences on the train show her that she couldn't integrate fully anyway, thanks to others' prejudices.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
At the women's prison, Ruth and Liza are put in a holding cell with other women. Ruth asks Liza if she'll be allowed to make a phone call, but Liza haughtily says that this isn't the movies. Women are taken from the cell one by one and finally, a guard calls Ruth. When Ruth asks to make a phone call, the guard curtly tells her to save it for her counselor. The guard takes Ruth's fingerprints and then takes her to a small room and commands her to strip. As Ruth undresses, she wonders if the guard's job is to make people feel as ashamed and undignified as possible.
It's worth noting that racism is predicated on dehumanizing others, while Ruth's job as a nurse is one that requires her to humanize every patient in her care. By drawing out these comparisons, the novel encourages the reader to see the police force as fundamentally flawed and dehumanizing.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
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While the guard looks behind Ruth's ears, under her toes, and tells her to squat and cough, Ruth thinks of how she memorized what the width of a dilated cervix feels like. She thinks of the experiences she's had delivering babies of sexual assault survivors, and how important it is to make those women feel safe. Ruth decides she doesn't have to choose to be a victim. As she accepts her orange scrubs, she looks the guard in the eye and says her name is Ruth.
Here, Ruth is able to draw on the sense of community she initially formed while helping others give birth. Then, it was formed to give them comfort, not Ruth, but the way it shapes her thinking here suggests that it can also work in reverse: by remembering her own compassion, Ruth can make herself feel less alone.
Themes
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth thinks back to when she was in fifth grade. One morning she read facts out of a fact book, which annoyed Rachel. Mama shut both girls down and then told Ruth to change her shirt; she had a stain and Mama insisted that if people saw it, they'd judge her for being black. Ruth complied and read one more fact as she changed: the loneliest creature in the world is a whale whose voice is so different, it's spent twenty years calling for a mate with no response.
Ruth identifies with the lonely whale in her fact book, suggesting that she's integrated too well with her white community at Dalton to effectively communicate with her black community at home in Harlem. Mama's request that Ruth change, however, shows that Ruth also isn't accepted at school—she's lonely everywhere.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
An inmate gives Ruth toiletries and a bedroll and shows her to her cell. Ruth notices that most of the inmates are black, while the guards are all white. Ruth's cellmate turns out to be a white woman named Wanda. Wanda asks if this is Ruth's first time in jail and when Ruth says she'll be leaving on bail soon, Wanda laughs: she's been waiting for her bail to clear for three weeks. Ruth won't say why she's in jail, and Wanda marvels that nobody in jail did anything illegal. She angrily says that stabbing her husband was an accident, just like him beating her was an accident. Ruth thinks of Davis and says she doesn't believe in accidents.
The observation of the racial breakdown among guards and inmates reinforces that there's more than simple “justice” at play in this system. Judging by the young male defendant that Kennedy described, it's possible that the white offenders are overwhelmingly able to either get off or get their bail settled quickly, while the black inmates are less likely to do either. The financial aspect of bail also illustrates the intersection between race and class.
Themes
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
During Ruth's meeting with her counselor, Officer Ramirez, Ruth is distraught to learn that it might take ten days before Edison can visit, and he might not be able to anyway—he's a minor, and Adisa can't accompany him because she has a record. When Ruth gets back to her cell, Wanda offers her a bit of her candy bar and invites her to watch Judge Judy. Ruth doesn't respond and prays instead of joining Wanda.
The issues Ruth experiences with visitation show how the criminal justice system continues to punish people who have brushes with the law. Adisa continues to pay the price for her misdeeds, even now when she's not doing anything wrong.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
As a girl, Ruth had semi-regular sleepovers with Christina at the brownstone. Sam would run old cartoons for the girls and Mama was always there in the morning to make pancakes. As Ruth and Christina got older, their differences became more pronounced. Ruth had to work after school, while Christina played soccer. Christina wasn't unfriendly and never outright excluded Ruth, but Ruth distanced herself. She believed that Christina would eventually exclude her anyway, but she didn't have many other friends. She and Rachel, who was eighteen and pregnant, could barely speak to each other.
When Ruth had to work and Christina got to play soccer, it illustrates the advantages of having a wealthy family—while Ruth had to work to help support hers, Christina's family didn't need her to do anything but have fun and be successful. Ruth's fears that Christina would exclude her imply that she felt inferior. Ruth grew up fearing that she'd be ostracized for her differences.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
One time, Ruth accepted an invitation to a slumber party with Christina and her friends. Christina invited two other sophomores and they lounged on the deck. The others slathered themselves in baby oil while Ruth put on sunscreen. They talked about one girl's sibling's trip to Europe over the summer, and Ruth thought of what a luxury that'd be. She went to the kitchen when Christina asked if she'd get them something to eat. Mama was making cookies and asked Ruth why she was here, her mouth tight. Ruth quietly said she had nowhere else to go, and Mama cryptically said that when she's ready, they'll be waiting for her. Ruth didn't know what she meant.
For Ruth, this sleepover only emphasizes the fact that she's fundamentally different than Christina and her friends. Christina's choice to send Ruth to fetch snacks is another microaggression that likely made Ruth feel like even more of an outsider than she already does—it suggests that Ruth is more of a maid like Mama than a friend. Mama's cryptic promise shows that Ruth does have a community somewhere; she just doesn't know who they are at this point.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
That night, Ruth did her best to fit in. She made sure she was last in the bathroom so she wouldn't have to answer questions about why she sleeps with her hair wrapped in a scarf, and planned to get up before anyone else to fix her hair. She finally slipped into bed next to Christina, who she thought was asleep but was actually awake. Her eyes flicked to the scarf, but she just said that she was glad Ruth was there.
Christina's ability to say that she was glad for Ruth's presence suggests that she might feel just as alienated among these girls as Ruth does. Because she's white and wealthy, however, it's easier for her to hide and pretend that things are fine.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth lies awake in jail, pretending to sleep. During one guard's circuit, he stops at Ruth and Wanda's cell and motions for Ruth to follow him. He leads her to a small room and hands her a bag with her clothes. Ruth changes into her nightgown, purposefully leaving her scrubs in a pile. The officer leads her outside and when Ruth says she has no money, the officer motions to a shape in the distance. It's Edison with the car.
The fact that Edison presumably did whatever he needed to do to post Ruth's bail illustrates the power of the relationship he has with his mother. As he grows and as she experiences this ordeal, he'll begin to grow up and care for his mother, just as she has cared for him.
Themes
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon