book review: We Love You, Charlie Freeman


We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge. Algonquin| March 8, 2016| 326 pages | $25.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-467-9

RATING: *****/5*

We Love You, Charlie Freeman stands out as a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research.

Mainly Laurel, the mother, will work with Charlie, the chimpanzee. Both daughters– teenager Charlotte and 11-year-old Callie– know sign language and the entire family with live with Charlie as if he’s another member of the family, sort of a brother. That’s the intent. Charlotte and Callie went to a “black, deaf overnight camp in the backwoods of Maryland.” Charlotte surmises it was for the two to make friends. She notes: “In Dorchester, our constant signing, our bookish ways and bans from fast-food restaurants and booty music, assured that me and Callie were unpopular on the block.” Debut novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge grew up in Boston and accurately describes Dorchester, the Berkshires and race in Massachusetts. The family soon learns about the institute’s notorious reputation, insidious rumors and unusual history.

Greenidge rotates points-of-view between the family members as well as a black woman name Nymphadora with an unusual association with the institution in 1929. Nymphadora describes herself: “I am a thirty-six-year-old unmarried, orphaned Negro schoolteacher, in charge of a room full of impressionable young colored minds and every night, I sing a dirty nursery rhyme to help me go to sleep. It is enough to laugh, if I did not always feel like weeping.”

Nymphadora lives in the mostly black Spring City. Back then researcher Dr. Gardner hires Nymphadora as a model to sketch. He sketches her nude and asks her to pose in unusual style. One day Nymphadora comes across the sketches Dr. Gardner made but instead of her face they contain the face of one of the chimpanzees. Appalled and upset, Nymphadora takes one of the sketches with her and writes to Dr. Gardner. Attempts and fails to collect an explanation or apology. The layers to Dr. Gardner’s shocking studies highlight misconceptions and stereotypes about race. Greenridge writes beautifully about the relationship that develops between Nympahdora and Dr. Gardner. She’s naïve. She trusts him enough to expose herself fully to him. He takes advantage and embarrasses her as well as many others.

In her new high school, although she’s one of few black students, Charlotte enjoys being rather anonymous. She notes: “Here, in Courtland County, I had the benefit of being unknown. Back home in Dorchester, I had been with the same kids since kindergarten and they all remembered me as the know-it-all who got uppity and insulted everyone in a secret language she spoke with her hands.” Charlotte’s dealing with a crush at school on another black student named Adia Breitling who teaches her many things about black culture, its history, the music and provides her information about what’s rumored about the institute. Charlotte notes that according to the Breitlings: “Black people could love Joni Mitchell but still claim to hate white singers. According to them, these were the things black people did not do: eat mayonnaise; drink milk; listen to Elvis Presley; watch Westerns or Dynasty; read Time magazine; appreciate Jack London; know the lyrics to Kenny Rogers’s songs; suffer fools; enjoy the cold or any kind of winter.”

One day Charlotte even finds her mom breastfeeding Charlie which leads her to question the entire situation. It’s clearly upsetting and weird for her. She also comes across information about the experiments conducted on black people by the institute in the 1930s. She speaks out at a dinner with Ms. Julia Toneybee-Leroy one evening and throws everyone into a frenzy. I preferred and appreciated Charlotte’s point-of-view most of all and it might have been as effective if she told the Freeman’s story.

Immediately bonding with Charlie, Laurel carries him around like a baby. He’s instantly attached and rather protective of their relationship. He wants no one to come between him and Laurel. This position at the institute training Charlie could change everything for Laurel. She’s always insisted on using black sign language versus white. “She should have started signing white again, at least get a shot at the better jobs, but Laurel was stubborn. She truly believed that she could win people over to her side of things. They only had to see black sign language, she was certain, to understand that is was special.” And Laurel does in the end choose Charlie over everything and everyone.

Callie grows jealous that her sister has a new friend and that her mom spends most of her time with Charlie. She starts over-eating and gains lots of weight. Charles, the father—who teaches at the school Charlotte attends–begins to grow apart from Laurel, abhors the entire experiment and decides to move out. This once close-knit family feels increasingly strained and pushed by Charlie the chimpanzee and Laurel’s fervent devotion to him. Eventually everything implodes.

–review by Amy Steele

Kaitlyn Greenidge will be reading at Porter Square Books on Thursday, March 17, 2016.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin Books.

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