Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel, “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” is a story of confrontations, questions, and revelations. No matter how uncomfortable things get for these characters, Greenidge shows the story through a lens most genuine.
The novel introduces the fictional Toneybee Institute for Ape Research, an institute looking for a family to assist them with their next experiment – teaching a chimpanzee to communicate using language. The Freeman family– formed by by teenage daughter Charlotte, the younger Callie, and parents Laurel and Charles– is selected from other sign language-proficient families to live on campus at the Toneybee and begin assisting Charlie, a young chimp, in communicating through sign language.
During the experiment, Charlie the chimp becomes considered the newest member of the Freeman family, but not necessarily to the liking of all. Relationship dynamics are changed and challenged as inevitable bonds with Charlie are formed during the family’s new life at the Institute. Life inside the home is not the only struggle for the family. The Toneybee Institute is located in a predominately white community, making the Freemans one of the few African-American families in the town, and certainly the only one living with a chimpanzee.
During their time at Toneybee, pieces of the past are revealed to Charlotte, causing her to question the ethics and true purpose of the experiment she is already so considerably now a part of. As the past becomes entangled with the present, and relationships are strained and altered, the truth is tested. “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” is a thought-provoking novel addressing disturbing questions of race and identity that relate to today’s world just as much as they do in the world created by Greenidge.
When introducing us to the controversial past of the Toneybee Institute, Greenidge alters points of view, giving us a direct glimpse of the history as it’s happening. Readers become acquainted with the institute’s past, and those affiliated with it, through the perspective of Nymphadora – a reluctant member of the Star of the Mornings and a willing participant of what would turn out to be disputatious result of secretive interactions with a peculiar scientist working for the Institute.
When the results of Nymphadora’s past are uncovered years later at the institute, Charlotte’s insecurities over the research project she is part of are reinforced. Was her family solely chosen for this experiment because they are African American? Are the Freemans the ones really being experimented on? And ultimately, does it even matter if they consider what they are doing for Charlie to be bigger, better, and realer than any initial intentions the institute had in choosing them for the experiment to begin with?
These are the questions the Freeman family faces and confronts while working with the Toneybee. While researchers insist that their being African-American is a descriptor rather than an identifier, some evidence proves otherwise. Charlotte’s discovery of the book “Man or Beast?” at the institute is one bit of this evidence.
Though the story’s ending can seem a bit abrupt and may leave readers wondering what became of the Freemans and Charlie, the epilogue satisfies most of those curiosities. What becomes of the Freeman family is revealed, but it is up to the readers to determine why. The deeply original and satisfying “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” is raw and even disturbing for the uncomfortable questions about race it raises. We need a book like this right now.
Full Disclosure: San Antonio Book Festival Executive Director Katy Flato sits on the Rivard Report board of directors. Learn more here.
*Top image: “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” was written by Kaitlyn Greenidge. Photo courtesy of Salon.