Sunday, February 12, 2017

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

One of my favorite books a few years back was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler - so when I heard about  We Love You, Charlie Freeman, with a somewhat similar plot, I was chasing the idea of recreating that thrilling feeling of reading Beside Ourselves for the first time.  That is always a dumb idea, although I do it all the time.  I hope every dystopian novel I read will be as great as The Handmaid's Tale and every olive I eat will taste as good as those olives we bought in a market in Spain and ate in our beautiful apartment in Sevilla, overlooking a plaza with orange trees and a nice bottle of wine.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, (2016) by Kaitlyn Greenidge, is about the Freemans, a black family who are chosen to live with a chimp at an institute outside Boston and teach him sign language.  Most of the story is told from the older daughter's perspective.  Charlotte is an oddity in their new town, being one of only a few black students, and lives in a huge institute with an animal and knows ASL.  The reason the family speaks sign language although none of them are deaf is slowly teased out.  The girls' mother forms an immediate bond with Charlie that they are never quite ever to match, despite the younger daughter's efforts.  Charlie attempts to dominate both children and diverts attention to himself as much as possible.  We learn that Charlie was taken from his own mother as a baby and never formed an attachment until he met the Freemans.

Charlotte's friend Aida introduces her to the racist history of the institute, which compared the chimps to a nearby black community, but Charlotte already knows that she's being observed just as much as Charlie by the scientists.  Greenridge also writes from the perspective of Ellen Jericho, a black school teacher from the early 20th century who became an object of the institute's early studies.  Ellen's story is heartbreaking - she's a clever, lonesome woman whose parents committed suicide.  She's part of a secret society, but always on the outskirts of that group and her community.

Another figure literally and figuratively hangs above the characters - Julia Toneybee-Leroy, who founded the institute and whose portrait hangs in the hall where the Freemans live.  Treated with deference by the scientists who repeat a clearly fabricated story about how Julia brought the first chimps to Massachusetts, and suspicion by the nearby black community, she's a nebulous influence until we do finally meet the elderly Ms. Toneybee-Leroy at a hilarious yet disturbing Thanksgiving dinner.  This privileged woman believes herself to be open-minded and open-hearted to both her chimps and the black community around her institute but of course treats them both with a motherly, condescending tone.  Toneybee-Leroy's ingrained racism is revealed wholesale in a letter she writes to "You, African-American people" that's meant to apologize but excuse herself from the painful experiments the institute inflicted on the black community it drew into its web.

To be honest, I was hoping for more storytelling around Charlie, but little text is devoted to his words -  that's simply not the story Greenidge is telling.  Just as there is no happy ending for man or beast in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the misguided experiment of Charlie and the Freeman family ends with disastrous results.  Greenidge's debut novel is a powerful story about institutionalized racism in America told with insight and beautifully developed characters.  I look forward to following her career!

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