Small Great Things follows Ruth, a black labor and delivery nurse; Turk, an angry white supremacist whose baby is born—and dies—in Ruth's hospital; and Kennedy, a white public defender who represents Ruth during her ensuing trial for murder. Ruth is put in a difficult position when Turk requests that no black staff touch his son, Davis. However, during a busy morning in which Davis's white nurse is called away to an emergency C-section, leaving Ruth temporarily to watch over the baby, Davis suddenly stops breathing, testing Ruth's commitment to her superior's orders as well as to her duties as a nurse. Following Davis's death, the state of Connecticut takes away Ruth's nursing license, suspends her from her job, and alleges that she's solely responsible for Davis's death. As the court case unfolds and as Turk tells his life story through flashbacks, the novel makes the case that racist hate like Turk's isn't something that a person is born with. Rather, hate is something learned, and it's easiest to learn to hate in the wake of an experience of intense fear, loneliness, or grief.
Turk's story begins in a court of law where a black man is being tried for killing Tanner, Turk's older brother, in a car accident. While Turk isn't yet an official skinhead or white nationalist, it's clear that he's been taught to hate black people from a young age: Turk's mother spits on the black man when he's found not guilty, and the family blames that man for the death of their son. This experience effectively destroys Turk's family. With their oldest son dead, Turk's parents split up and Turk, blinded by grief, begins experimenting with crime. As a teen, he attracts the attention of Raine Tesco, a white supremacist in his early twenties who sees in Turk the opportunity to channel Turk's hate and make him feel like he's part of a community. Turk, still haunted by Tanner's death and still blaming the black man for it, eagerly attends a white supremacist music festival with Raine and not long after, participates in his formal initiation into the group: an outing to beat up gay men outside of a gay bar. During this outing, Turk learns several things. First, he discovers that hurting others offers him relief from the pain he feels at seeing his family destroyed. This suggests that a person like Turk, who is already angry and hurting, is far more likely to turn to violence when given the opportunity. Then, Turk learns that his now-absent father is gay and at the bar that night. After beating up his own father, Turk affirms his relationship with Raine's crew, pledges to act as a "race warrior" to promote the white race, and effectively disowns his blood family.
The high emotion, the anger, and the echo chamber of white supremacist ideas that Turk then spends all of his time around do lasting damage to his critical thinking skills and his capacity for kindness and empathy. When Turk's mother dies and he goes through her belongings, he finds the transcripts from Tanner's court case and reads through them. In doing so, he discovers that Tanner was actually high and swerved into the black man's lane of traffic, complicating Turk's understanding of his brother's death as a simple racially motivated murder. However, because of Turk's involvement with white supremacist organizations, he's unable to even consider that Tanner's death may have been an accident caused by Tanner himself. With this, the novel illustrates how being immersed in hateful rhetoric makes it nearly impossible to ask difficult or nuanced questions about race and how it functions in society—because Turk both believes in the inherent superiority of white people, and because asking those questions could mean expulsion from the community or even death.
When Davis dies, surrounded by a team of medical professionals that includes Ruth, Turk's pent-up hate makes it easy for him to lay all the blame on her. However, as the court case progresses, Turk learns several things that shake his beliefs to the core. His first revelation is that his wife Brit, the daughter of one of the most powerful white supremacists on the east coast, is actually the light-skinned daughter of a black woman—and that Brit's father, Francis, was encouraged to join by people who preyed on his grief and anger at losing his girlfriend to a black man (Francis conveniently left out that his girlfriend was black as well).
With this comes the twin realization that, because of Turk's beliefs regarding what makes a person black, both Brit and Davis are black—and yet, Turk still loves his wife and still wishes his son were alive. In the epilogue, Brit and Turk come to represent the two extremes of what this kind of racism can do. Unable to come to terms with her identity, Brit commits suicide—her hate, anger, and belief in the inferiority of black people meant that she was unable to live with herself knowing that she was black. Turk, on the other hand, reforms his belief, remarries and has a daughter, and speaks regularly to students about the danger of giving oneself over to hate, racism, and the draw of a community founded on violence. With this, Small Great Things ultimately suggests that personal, emotional racism can be fought through personal empathy, critical thinking, and love for individuals that are unlike oneself.
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief ThemeTracker
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Quotes in Small Great Things
They were all wearing black shirts with a logo over the chest: NADS. "What's that stand for?" I asked.
"North American Death Squad," Raine said. "It's kind of our thing."
I wanted one of those T-shirts so bad. "So, like, how do you get to be a part of it?" I asked, as casually as I could manage.
One of the other guys laughed. "You get asked," he said.
I decided at that moment I was going to do whatever it took to get an invitation.
Suddenly I realize that Kennedy's refusal to mention race in court may not be ignorant. It's the very opposite. It's because she is aware of exactly what I have to do in order to get what I deserve.
I might as well be blind and lost, and Kennedy McQuarrie is the only one with a map.
"You say you don't see color...but that's all you see. You're so hyperaware of it, and of trying to look like you aren't prejudiced, you can't even understand that when you say race doesn't matter all I hear is you dismissing what I've felt, what I've lived, what it's like to be put down because of the color of my skin."
"They promised us we'd be part of something bigger than us. That we'd be proud of our heritage and our race. And maybe that's, like, ten percent of the whole deal. The rest is just hating everyone else for existing. Once I started thinking that, I couldn't stop. Maybe that's why I felt like shit all the time, like I wanted to fucking bust someone's face in constantly, just to remind myself that I could. That's okay for me. But that's not how I want my kid to grow up."
I've always thought of her as an uptight piece of work. But now I'm wondering: when she goes shopping, is she, like Ruth, asked to show her receipts before exiting the store? Does she mutely hand them over? Or does she ever snap and say she is the one who puts shoplifters on trial?
What would happen if I ran into him on the street? At a Starbucks? Would we do the man hug thing? Or would we pretend we didn't know each other? He knew what I was, on the outside, just like I knew what he was. But in jail, things were different, and what I'd been taught to believe didn't hold true. If we crossed paths now, would he still be Twinkie to me? Or would he just be another nigger?
I have been thinking about what Odette Lawton said: if I hadn't spoken out against the black nurse, would this have ended differently? Would she have tried to save Davis the minute she realized he wasn't breathing? Would she have treated him like any other critical patient, instead of wanting to hurt me like I'd hurt her?
What Kennedy said to all those strangers, it's been the narrative of my life, the outline inside of which I have lived. But I could have screamed it from the rooftops, and it wouldn't have done any good. For the jurors to hear it, really hear it, it had to be said by one of their own.
My head actually aches from holding three incompatible truths in it: 1. Black people are inferior. 2. Brit is half black. 3. I love Brit with all my heart.
Shouldn't numbers one and two make number three impossible? Or is she the exception to the rule? Was Adele one, too?
I think of me and Twinkie dreaming of the food we craved behind bars.
How many exceptions do there have to be before you start to realize that maybe the truths you've been told aren't actually true?