At first glance We Love You, Charlie Freeman (March 2016) is a coming-of-age story about a family hired to live with a chimpanzee as part of a language experiment, but behind it is the disturbing story of race relations in America. Parts of this novel were difficult to read. The scientific interpretation of race relations brought back memories of reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man in college. Race, history, ethics, and sexuality are some of the topics explored in this impressive first novel.
The Tonybee Institute, founded in 1929, has been in pursuit of discovering something great in ape research since its inception. One of their focuses has been on language, specifically to teach apes how to communicate with humans. Their most recent experiment involves a family from Boston that they hire and bring to live on the Institute’s grounds along with one of their young chimpanzees, Charlie. The Freemans—Laurel, Charles, Charlotte (14 years old) and Callie (9 years old)—are to adopt Charlie as their own son and brother and teach Charlie sign language. Believing that they are there because Laurel impressed them with her sign language skills is only part of the reason the Tonybee Institute was interested in this particular family. The fact that they are African-Americans interested them as well.
The present-day experiment with the Freemans shifts back to the time of the Institute’s beginning, when the first head of Tonybee, an anthropologist interested in evolution named Dr. Gardner, is conducting experiments of his own. His intentions are, at the very least, questionable. But when he seduces a young African-American teacher to lie naked for him so he can draw her and right the misrepresentations of her race, the truth of what he is actually doing surfaces.
The two time periods and shifting points of view really made this a powerful novel. This literary approach allowed the reader to see the historical landscape, thus providing a clearer picture of the Freeman family’s undoing.
I found the mother, Laurel, to be one of the most interesting characters. She grew up isolated on her family’s tree farm in Maine. Her life changed when a school for the colored deaf came to visit the farm. Laurel learned sign language through a book they sent her. She later learns she is treated differently depending on the way she signs—signing black gets her assistant jobs, signing white gets her the Tonybee Institute. However, even with this knowledge, her love for Charlie blinds her to what’s happening to her family at the Institute. Why was she so overcome with love for Charlie?
This would make for an excellent discussion book selection. There is so much discussable material in this novel ranging from racism to language to family.
Greenidge deals with the abhorrent history of race relations in America with care. In her capable hands, the Freeman’s story is told honestly and gracefully. I highly recommend this novel to readers who enjoy thought-provoking literary fiction, especially those rooted in history. Greenidge is a talented storyteller and I look forward to following her career as a novelist.
Reviewed by Libby Bridges
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