We Love You, Charlie Freeman: A Novel
Because of their knowledge of sign language, a Boston family is chosen to help conduct an experiment for a somewhat mysterious institute. The privately funded Tonybee Institute tasks the Freeman’s with teaching a chimpanzee—the eponymous Charlie—to sign, a skill Laurel, matron of the Freemans, picked up as the only black kid in the Maine of her childhood, and passed on to her daughters.
While Laurel’s eldest daughter Charlotte narrates much of the novel, Greenidge employs multiple narrators to tell her many-layered story. Sure, Charlotte does most of the work telling the story of teaching the chimp to sign, but we also get the story of Laurel’s childhood on a Maine tree farm strait from the horse’s mouth, and, perhaps most interestingly, the story of the Tonybee’s founding in the 1920s from a orphaned school teacher known as Nymphadora.
A terrific first novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman examines the “failures of the spoken word,” as Laurel puts it. Greenidge uses the story to delve into the ways language isolates, the way it reinforces racial divides, keeps people down, trapped. But it also explores ways to subvert language, ways to exploit it. We can surely expect good things to come from Kaitlyn Greenidge.