We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Published by Algonquin Books, 324 pages, $26
Complex subtleties of race, family, language and history are the subjects of this wide-ranging debut novel. Kaitlyn Greenidge gives us the black Freeman family, who move from Boston to a predominantly white town in rural Massachusetts to live at the Toneybee Institute. As part of a research project, they’ve been hired to teach sign language to a young chimp named Charlie. The names of the Freemans—14-year-old Charlotte, 9-year-old Callie and parents Charles and Laurel—overlap ringingly with that of the animal who becomes like a cozy family member. Greenidge shows the unrolling chimp/human connection and the uncanny love that grows between them. Indeed, Laurel becomes so bonded with Charlie that she breast-feeds him, eventually causing a schism in the family. Shocked, Charlotte turns her loving attention to her bold classmate Adia, who inducts her into an arty, political view of black life.
Charlotte also learns of Toneybee’s disturbing history. The story stretches back to 1929, when Julia Toneybee-Leroy, a rich white woman, started the institute, aiming to teach apes to speak. But later she discovers that “terrible eugenics experiments” had been conducted on black men there in pursuit of the loathsome idea of a similarity between blacks and apes. Also victimized is a black schoolteacher named Nymphadora; seeking connection, she’s exploited by the white Dr. Gardner, who studies skulls and bones of man and beast and gets her to pose for him inappropriately. Shifting points of view and alternating between past and present, Greenidge paints a descriptive picture, pungent with tastes and smells of the family of man.
From page 143: Adia’s skin was much softer than I thought it would be. She liked to use her hands to gouge and sketch and scratch so it was a surprise that her fingers were pneumatic and smooth. In the warm dark of Adia’s room, we began to practice the alphabet. I crooked her fingers, made them swoop through the air. She sat up on one elbow so she could see my hands move.