We Love You, Charlie Freeman
In her debut novel, Kaitlyn Greenidge sets a high bar for future books. This unusual novel about a chimp and a human family reveals a great deal of how we think about race and culture, the impact of culture on scientific study, where language fails, and the strange ways families can fall apart.
The Freeman family, well-educated but underpaid, decide to leave Boston when Lauren, the mother, is invited to participate in an experiment in the countryside where she will be teaching the sign language she learned as a child to a young chimpanzee, Charlie. Her husband and two daughters are uprooted and relocated at the scientific institute, taking an apartment on the premises. They meet Charlie, the chimp, who is about a year old. Charlie immediately takes to their mother, but is hesitant about accepting the rest of the family.
The story is told from the point of view of the older sister, Charlotte, for the most part. Through Charlotte’s adolescent eyes, we watch as Lauren’s obsession with teaching Charlie sign language begins to erode her love for her family.
The other part of the story involves the experiments practiced by the institute at its inception, studies which are abhorrent to modern readers. But in the early 1920s, the world was a very different place. Ideas about eugenics were in the air, as well as rampant racism. In this framed story, Nymphadora, an African-American woman who teaches school, is seduced by a white doctor at the institute. The seduction has to do with photography and loneliness, how one can be persuaded to commit atrocious acts in the name of science.
This is a fascinating novel, filled with insights about a multitude of things. Read it!