Greenidge, Kaitlyn. 2016. We Love You, Charlie Freeman. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.
This remarkable novel weaves together two narratives separated by 60 years, deftly illustrating the impact of racial bias on science and on Black families in America. In the contemporary timeline, the Freeman family is moving from Boston to the Toneybee Institute in rural Massachusetts to participate in a grand experiment. They will be living with a young chimpanzee, treating him like a family member, and teaching him sign language. Doctors will be monitoring their progress with frequent visits and video documentation.
Laurel Freeman learned sign language as a young girl and taught it to her husband and daughters. Because of her insistence on signing in the Black dialect, she has been denied promotions and has worked as a teaching assistant for 15 years. This opportunity is her chance not only to access higher pay and respect but to share the beauty of Black sign. Her husband Charles and older daughter Charlotte are less enthusiastic about being uprooted, particularly because of the loss of Black community. Younger daughter Callie, though, has been yearning to be seen and to be loved, and throws herself into trying to become best friends with her new “brother,” Charlie.
In 1929, Nymphadora, a Black schoolteacher, falls in love with a white doctor who is studying the apes at the new Toneybee Institute. He seeks her out, ingratiates himself to her, and convinces her to help him with his other research project—studying Black bodies to prove that they are not inferior. This doctor’s research in 1929 becomes the subject of a new book in 1990, exposing the Institute’s troubling history of scientific racism. When Charlotte discovers the book, her discomfort with the earnest white doctors and the encouragement to see Charlie as part of the family click, and she struggles to make her family and community understand the legacy of racism, both institutional and microaggressional.
This novel alternates between five characters’ stories and succeeds in illustrating those characters fully, with a rare depth of emotion and personality. Characters’ inner thoughts, motivations, and dialog are all perfectly believable and easy to understand and inhabit as a reader. Although there are many points of view, though, the star is certainly Charlotte, and her story goes a little deeper. As an adolescent abruptly moved into an overwhelmingly white rural town, she has a difficult time finding community. She becomes friends with the only other Black girl in her school, and becomes enamored with her. Rather than being a plot device or feeling stuck-on to make the character more interesting, Charlotte’s queerness is a part of herself that she slowly discovers as she develops confidence, uncovers history, and learns the unique pain of loving her family while simultaneously accepting their deep flaws.
I highly recommend this beautiful, challenging novel to mature teens and adults of all identities. History buffs will recognize the “Great Chain of Being” and draw comparisons to the tragedy of Saartjie Baartman; readers for whom this information is new will gain a nuanced understanding of the scientific racism that still pervades the social sciences and popular culture today.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman was on the short list for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.