Small Great Things

Small Great Things

by

Jodi Picoult

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Small Great Things can help.

Small Great Things: Chapter 14, Ruth Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Adisa buys Ruth lunch at a bistro. They talk about how much money Ruth has saved and Adisa tries to convince Ruth to file for unemployment, since her court date could be months away. Adisa asks the bartender to change the channel so they can watch Wallace Mercy lambast a Texas school district that mistakenly thought a Muslim boy brought a bomb to school. Adisa gasps that Ruth needs Wallace Mercy on her side, but Ruth says that he's too angry all the time. Annoyed, Adisa says that Mercy is the only person capable of being angry for black people.
By comparing Adisa's assessment of Wallace Mercy with Ava's, it's clear that Mercy is doing the black community a service in the eyes of black people like Adisa. Ruth's assessment, however, suggests that she's spent enough time with her white friends and coworkers to not be able to see the value of Mercy's activism. Of course, it’s possible that Mercy could be both a great help to his community and also an attention-seeking opportunist—but that doesn’t undo the good work he actually does.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
Christina invites Ruth to her house for lunch. A maid serves them salad and Ruth asks where Christina heard about Ruth's current debacle. Christina says that Larry filed to run for office, so they have the news on all the time now. She asks if being in jail was like Orange Is the New Black and then says she asked Larry to hire a lawyer. Before Ruth can refuse, Christina says that Larry refused and insisted he couldn't be involved in a scandal. They fought, but he's firm in his decision. Ruth feels stupid and asks Christina if she invited her to say that they can't be friends anymore. After a long silence, Christina says she just needed to know that Ruth was okay.
When Christina can't speak to Ruth outright about what happened, it suggests that Christina is extremely uncomfortable talking about race, even with someone she's known all her life. As far as Ruth is concerned, Christina's reaction is proof that Christina is too wealthy and too white to actually be able to connect with her, which allows Ruth to finish what she started as a teen and finally distance herself from Christina.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Bitterly, Ruth says that Christina doesn't have to care anymore. Both women apologize, and then Christina fetches her purse and shoves a wad of bills into Ruth's hand. Ruth refuses dessert and tries to refuse the money, but Christina forces Ruth to take the money as she leaves. Before Ruth takes the elevator down, she leaves the money under Christina's mat.
Ruth's unwillingness to take the money connects back to her earlier statement that family doesn't get a paycheck. What she really needs is a friend, while Christina is trying to show she cares in the only way she knows how.
Themes
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Later, Adisa marches Ruth to the counter at the welfare office to apply for assistance. Ruth feels like she's dying as she starts to fill out the form and notices that the room is filled with white women. When she refuses to list her income as $0, Adisa finishes the form for her. Four hours later, a caseworker calls Ruth and Adisa back for an interview. Ruth tries to explain that she's been suspended from her job, but Adisa takes over. In Ebonics (or AAVE), she insists that Ruth has no job and no money. When the caseworker says that Ruth qualifies for Obamacare and Ruth tries to refuse, Adisa berates Ruth. The caseworker announces that Ruth qualifies for medical, food stamps, and cash assistance.
Ebonics is a (somewhat controversial) term for African-American Vernacular English (also referred to as AAVE); it's considered an English dialect or even a language in its own right and, as Ruth observes here, Adisa's use of it makes it clear that she's not trying to be white at all. While Adisa's desire to connect to her black roots suggests that she's proud of using the language, Ruth, on the other hand, sees AAVE as humiliating, as she's spent her life trying to speak in such a way as to sound more white. At the same time, Adisa’s ability to code switch actually gets Ruth the money she needs.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Get the entire Small Great Things LitChart as a printable PDF.
Small Great Things PDF
A few weeks later, Ruth starts her first shift at McDonald's. She was asked to start immediately, so she left a note for Edison saying she has a surprise. A teen named Nahndi shows Ruth the different stations and an hour later, Ruth is independently assembling orders. Six hours in, a woman orders McNuggets. She eats her order and then returns to the counter and says her box was empty. Nahndi assures her they'll fix it and whispers to Ruth that this woman does this all the time. She advises Ruth to not let it get under her skin. As the after-school rush arrives, Ruth recognizes a voice. It's Edison and Bryce.
The experience of working at McDonald's means that Ruth will experience even more microaggressions, as she'll come into contact with even more people from all walks of life. Nahndi's advice to not let things get under her skin adds to the number of people telling Ruth to not worry about things or see racism. But by ignoring racism, people allow it to continue, which in turn means that it'll never change.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
When Ruth gets home, she showers, starts dinner, and texts Edison. When he finally gets home, he grabs a big Mason jar and a checkbook and announces that there are several thousand dollars between the two. Edison saved this money from his summer jobs, so Ruth refuses. Edison starts to cry, saying that he can't let Ruth work at McDonald's. Edison admits that at school, teachers and students are whispering and offering to help. He says he failed a test because he walked out of class after a teacher was nice to him. Finally he explodes and shouts that he doesn't want to need help. Ruth assures him they don't need help and tries not to think that she lied to him.
Edison's struggle to accept Ruth's new job shows that he truly believed her when she told him that they could be whatever they wanted, if only they worked hard enough. His desire to be treated like anyone else shows that he's having a hard time suddenly being subjected to so much scrutiny and well-intentioned kindness. Like Kennedy's comment that she doesn't see race, these kindnesses just make Edison even more aware that he's different from his white peers.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
A week later, Ruth is on her way out the door for her shift when Wallace Mercy appears on her doorstep. Giggling, Ruth shows him in and offers him coffee. He tells Ruth that her community is bigger than her church and he wants her to know that she's not alone. Ruth believes he just wants to use her case to get noticed. Mercy asks if any of Ruth's white colleagues defended her when she was asked to not care for Davis, says they threw her under the bus because she's black, and assures her that black people will march on her behalf. He reminds her of Trayvon Martin and says that during the trial, the white judge banned the term "racial profiling." As he leaves, Mercy leaves behind money and checks that his fans have sent on her behalf.
Wallace Mercy's advice makes it clear that he knows Ruth's case was racially motivated, and he also knows that she's going to suffer in court if she's not able to call it what it was. His assertion that her black community will march for her introduces Ruth to the possibility that accepting this community might not represent a failure to thrive and effectively assimilate in white society. Instead, it could mean that she has support that she didn't realize was there.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ruth tells the reader about her favorite picture of her and Wesley. It's a wedding photo, and right after it was taken, Ruth used the restroom. When she came out, Wesley was holding a valet claim ticket--someone had mistaken him for a bellhop.
This is another example of white people making assumptions that in turn show black people that white society doesn't think highly of them, or that they can't be successful.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Within a month of getting the job at McDonald's, Ruth is a favorite among her managers. Her availability means that they often give her her favorite job, cashier. She learns to love the regulars and gives homeless people food when she can. One morning, a man comes in and asks for a song. Next in line is Kennedy holding Violet. Kennedy blushes and seems shocked that Ruth is working at McDonald's. When she tells Ruth that McDonald's is a treat, Ruth realizes that they both want to be the kind of parent who doesn't feed their child fast food for breakfast. When Ruth asks if there's any news, Kennedy says there isn't, but assures Ruth that this is normal.
Again, Ruth is able to see that she and Kennedy, despite the differences of skin color and economic standing, aren't all that different—they both want to raise healthy children and look like they don't rely on fast food. This allows Ruth to start to humanize Kennedy more and see her as a fellow parent, not just her public defender. The fact that Ruth loves being a cashier points to her love of people: she gets to interact with everyone as a cashier.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth remembers how, a week after starting at Dalton, she came down with a stomachache. Mama brought her to work and settled her on Sam Hallowell's couch with saltines and her scarf. Ruth was shocked when Mr. Hallowell himself came in and started asking Ruth about school, and if her stomach pains came when she thought about school. Ruth was afraid he could read minds, but he told her that he knew what was wrong: when he first started at NBC, he got sick with fear that people would think he was an imposter. He told Ruth that she belonged at school.
Though Sam Hallowell's pep talk presumably had the desired effect, it also fails to take into account that because Ruth is one of only a few black students at Dalton, she is treated differently. That treatment may contribute to her sense (also known as “imposter syndrome”) that she doesn't belong.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ruth thinks of this as Edison's principal tells her that Edison punched Bryce. The principal agrees to not put it on Edison's permanent record, but suspends him for the rest of the week. Ruth feels humiliated; she's usually at school because Edison did something wonderful. Outside the office, Ruth scolds Edison, but she turns to head back inside when Edison admits that Bryce laughed at a mean joke about Ruth working at McDonald's. He begs her to not speak to the principal; he's already the butt of every joke. Ruth doesn't know what to say, since she feels like Edison was right but beating people up won't change a thing.
Bryce's behavior suggests that Edison is going through the same thing that Ruth is in terms of realizing who is actually a part of his community: Bryce now joins Marie and Corinne on the list of white "friends" who disregard Ruth and Edison and refuse to see the ways in which they're struggling. Ruth's sense of helplessness speaks to the fine line that she's forced to walk as a black person; she can't get angry, but it also hurts to stay silent.
Themes
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
When they get home, Ruth grounds Edison for one week. She extends it to two when he suggests that he should punch more white people. He storms into the house, nearly knocking over Kennedy in the process. Ruth delicately shows Kennedy in. Kennedy unpacks a box of files and asks Ruth for help interpreting Davis's medical file. Ruth looks it over and explains that his blood sugar was low and there was a possible heart murmur, but everything else was normal. Davis died before the cardiologist could look at his heart, but the medical examiner's report confirms the heart murmur. Kennedy agrees to subpoena the heel stick, the state-mandated blood test for newborns.
Davis's medical records offer up enough things that were wrong for Kennedy to reasonably make the case that Davis was already at risk, which means that she may be able to successfully ignore racism in the courtroom. However, in doing so, Kennedy would also be silencing Ruth and depriving her of her opportunity to speak out about what happened to her.
Themes
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
Kennedy asks if the heart murmur was life-threatening, and Ruth explains that it usually isn't. Kennedy says they can say anything they want about his health; they just have to convince the jury that his death wasn't Ruth's fault. When Ruth suggests showing the jury Marie's sticky note, Kennedy says that'll give the jury a reason to think Ruth murdered Davis. As she asks Ruth if it's more important to make a point or go free, Ruth's hand tightens on the paper and she gets a paper cut. She considers telling Kennedy that she tried to resuscitate Davis, but instead leaves to get a box of Band-Aids. Ruth explains how Edison used to ask her to take the jelly off of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but that's impossible—just as it's impossible to say this case isn't about racism.
Ruth's attempts to talk to Kennedy about racism using metaphors like the peanut butter and jelly sandwich offer Kennedy multiple ways to enter into a conversation. In this way, Ruth finds ways to circumvent Kennedy's desire for silence regarding race, while still making sure that they have these conversations. When Ruth continues to keep it a secret that she tried to save Davis, it shows that she doesn't yet fully trust Kennedy with her story. Given how Kennedy treats Ruth when it comes to her concerns, this is understandable.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
Primly, Kennedy says again that they can't talk about racism and this "perceived slight." Ruth dumps out the Band-Aids and asks if any of them are the color of her skin. Kennedy insists that it's not her fault, she's not a racist, and she says that she does what she can to make black men think she's not afraid of them on the street. Ruth points out that when she says that she doesn't see color, she's just dismissing Ruth's lived experience. Kennedy tightly says that she doesn't know what it's like to be black, but Ruth will lose if she brings up race. She packs up her things and leaves, and Ruth finds Wallace Mercy's business card.
The tenor of this conversation makes it clear just how difficult this subject is, especially for Kennedy—she doesn't want to be perceived as being racist, but her unwillingness to talk frankly about it with Ruth means that that's how she's perceived. When Ruth decides to reach out to Wallace Mercy, it suggests that she understands now that this is her best chance to make Kennedy take her seriously.
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
Related Quotes