Small Great Things

Small Great Things

by

Jodi Picoult

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Small Great Things: Chapter 17, Ruth Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
During one of Ruth's shifts in January, she thinks of Edison. He's stopped doing his homework and is sullen and moody, but Ruth doesn't know what to do. A gaggle of white girls gets to the front of the line, engrossed in a text exchange and not ready to order. When Ruth suggests the girls step aside if they're not ready, one girl uses black slang in her reply. Ruth is incredulous. A few minutes later, Ruth leaves her station and tells the girl that she didn't appreciate her attitude. Ruth's boss calls her back to work.
When Ruth chooses to not make a big deal of this teenager's racism, she finds herself in a similar position as Beattie did in Ava's story—if Ruth makes a fuss, she'll put her job on the line and she can't afford to do this. This shows how, because of Ruth's race and her economic standing, she's kept from advocating for herself.
Themes
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Theme Icon
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
After work, Ruth discovers six missed calls from KennedyAdisa apparently involved Wallace Mercy and set up a march in Ruth's honor. Ruth takes the bus to Adisa's apartment. Adisa is thrilled that Ruth heard about the march, but upset when Ruth says she doesn't need Mercy. Before their argument can escalate, one of Adisa's sons bursts in with another boy who turns out to be Edison. Both are dressed like gangsters and say they're going to see a movie, but Ruth doesn't believe it. She grabs Edison and drags him out. As they walk to the bus, Edison apologizes. He says that his cousin isn't so bad, but Ruth implies that Edison shouldn't do this again.
Adisa's decision to go around Ruth to involve Wallace Mercy herself speaks to how downtrodden and powerless she feels as a black woman. She sees that Mercy is the only person capable of raising his voice in a way that white people will listen to. When Edison notes that his cousin isn't as bad as Ruth seems to think, it does indicate that he's learning to humanize his cousins, even though they live and speak differently than he does.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth remembers Edison's birth. She'd had an emergency C-section and Mama had been with her since Wesley was away. When Ruth woke up after the procedure, Mama gave Edison to her. He started to cry, and Ruth panicked. She tried to give him back to Mama, but she wouldn't take him. Ruth whispered to Edison that she was his mama and was going to give him the best life possible.
This moment with Mama and Edison reinforces the strong relationship that Ruth has with Mama. When Mama insisted that Ruth care for her own baby, she in turn prodded Ruth in the direction of independence and forming her own family.
Themes
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Near the end of January, Kennedy invites Ruth and Edison to dinner. Micah answers the door with Violet in his arms, dressed in a Tiana costume. Ruth accepts a glass of wine and sits in the living room with Micah and Kennedy. Micah asks Edison about school and if he likes Obama, but Violet interrupts and asks Edison to color with her. She corrects Edison's choice to color Cinderella's dress green and then points to the chain around his neck and says that it means he's a slave. Both Micah and Kennedy shout.
When Violet equates Edison's chain with slavery, it hearkens back to the toy that Ruth saw when she was with Christina. Violet's comment likely stems from seeing something like that slave toy, which seems innocuous to someone with no concept of slavery. Violet will need to learn both the history of racism and how to not behave in a racist way in the present.
Themes
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Theme Icon
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
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Ruth takes it upon herself to explain slavery to Violet. She gives a brief account of the slave trade to the Americas and says that there's also slavery in the Bible. Ruth notices that during her lesson, Edison removes his chain. She follows Kennedy into the kitchen, where Kennedy again apologizes for Violet and the flawed way they've been talking to her about race. The women laugh and Ruth feels like they have a lot in common. Edison enters the kitchen and gives Ruth her cell phone to answer a call from Ms. Mina.
Ruth makes sure that Violet doesn't just equate slavery with black people; by pointing out that there's slavery in the Bible, she insists that it's an issue that the entire world has had to deal with, not just the Americas. Ruth's sense that she and Kennedy have a lot in common again speaks to the power of parenthood to bring people together.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ruth remembers getting a black Barbie one year for Christmas. Mama made Barbie clothes out of socks and a dream house out of shoeboxes, but Rachel teased Ruth for it. Rachel's friends teased Ruth too because Ruth didn't fit in with them in Harlem. One afternoon, Rachel's friends descended on her after school, dumped out her backpack, and dismembered her Barbie. Rachel swept in, hit her friends, and took Ruth home, saying that Ruth was her only sister.
Rachel's decision to rescue her sister instead of side with her friends again speaks to the power of family. Even though Rachel and Ruth didn't and still don't get along all the time, Rachel recognizes that their relationship to each other and to Mama is stronger than any relationships she might have with other girls.
Themes
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth rushes to the hospital; Mama had a stroke and died in the ambulance. Ruth lets herself into Mama's room and gently washes her mother's body. After Ruth finishes, Adisa comes in, wailing. When she finally stops crying, they fall into each other's arms. Adisa says she told Wallace Mercy to go away, and that Ruth is her only sister.
By placing Rachel's childhood insistence that Ruth is her only sister alongside a similar scene as adults, the novel suggests that family is something that endures and continues to teach people how to humanize each other and care for one another.
Themes
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Mama's funeral is a lavish affair in her Harlem church. Ms. Mina has bought the fanciest casket, and people shuffle past, looking at Mama. Ruth wanted to bury Mama in her scarf, but she couldn't find it. When the service begins, Ruth notices that Kennedy and an older woman are there among the sea of black faces. Mama's friends speak and then Adisa speaks. Ruth speaks next and chokes back panic. Her jokes fall flat, but she talks about how the only thing Mama was truly proud of was her children. Ruth wonders if this was actually true as she starts to cry. She thinks back to Mama's words at Christina's slumber party—that they'll be waiting for her when Ruth is ready, and thinks that Mama was referring to this congregation. Adisa finally leads Ruth back to her seat.
Ruth now understands that Mama wanted Ruth to realize that this church congregation would always be there for her. Mama was aware that even if Ruth became successful and assimilated into white culture, there would still be times when Ruth wasn't truly welcome in her white community. With this, it becomes clear that Mama knew what Ruth was getting into, and she wanted to make sure Ruth had a place to go when things went south.
Themes
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The group reconvenes at Mama's apartment after the graveside ceremony. Ruth takes refuge in the kitchen and looks through Mama's partially finished handwritten cookbook. Kennedy interrupts Ruth, introduces Ava, and asks about the cookbook. Bitterly, Ruth says that Mama wasted her life slaving away for someone else and was too busy to finish it. Ava takes an old photograph out and hands it to Ruth. It's of her as a child with Beattie, and Ruth can tell that the two loved each other. Ava says that Mama didn't waste her life as Kennedy embraces Ruth.
Ava's photograph acts as an indicator that family doesn't have to be bound by blood, and that receiving a paycheck doesn't mean that people can't love each other like family. This helps Ruth to make sense of Mama's choice to work for Ms. Mina until the day she died, as she's able to understand more fully that Mama likely loved the Hallowells, just as Ava and Beattie loved each other.
Themes
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
Related Quotes