“This car doesn’t feel like ours,” says 14-year-old Charlotte Freeman of the family’s new 1991 Volvo station wagon. She prefers their old Chevy sedan, the “foam cushions peeling with faded stickers from some long discarded coloring book.”
It’s her mother’s new job that Charlotte really rebels against. They are leaving their home in Boston to live in a small community surrounded by countryside. Charlotte’s recalcitrance at the beginning of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s impressive debut novel, “We Love You, Charlie Freeman,” signals an unease that only intensifies as the story unfolds.
The Freemans are on their way to the Toneybee Institute for Ape Research. They’ve “been chosen to take part in an experiment” to teach sign language to a chimpanzee named Charlie, the parents tell Charlotte and her younger sister Callie. They might “even make scientific history.”
No one in the Freeman family is deaf. The girls learned sign language from their mother, Laurel, who became fascinated with what she considers a superior form of expression when she was a child and became an interpreter.
Nonetheless, Charlotte wants no part of the project. She finds the institute, a squat brick building “flanked by two towers with wings beyond,” physically oppressive. As they make their way to the family quarters, the dim, dank walls emit the “pungent” scent of animals. Nothing about it feels right.
She has her own problems, struggling with fitting in as one of the only black students in her new school, while Laurel becomes Charlie’s surrogate mother, unavailable to her daughters. The lonely Callie tries desperately to connect with the new family member, and the mellow father, Charles, emerges from the background to mediate family conflicts.
Greenidge structures the novel around three strong narratives: Charlotte’s coming-of-age exploration of identity and sexuality, the Freemans’ experiences at the institute and the institute’s dark history.
The latter gives the novel potency through the voice of Ellen Jericho, known as Nymphadora (a name given to her when she was a girl and initiated into a black women’s organization), who becomes a subject of research at the institute in 1929. Her voice provides a disturbing context of racist history and exploitation of black Americans in so-called scientific studies.
While the novel would benefit from stronger characterizations of Charles and Laurel, Greenidge pulls together the multiple story lines and strong perspectives of Charlotte and Nymphadora with her descriptive powers, lively dialogue and a fluid, engaging style.
With this ambitious, compelling novel, she brings an original and thoughtful voice to the exploration of the complexities and ambiguities of race and gender, what it means to be a family, the relationship between humans and wild animals in domestic settings and the failures of communication across cultures and species.
Elfrieda Abbe is a freelance critic in Milwaukee.