We Love You, Charlie Freeman

We Love You Charlie FreemanThe Freeman family has an opportunity to be part of scientific history. Laurel Freeman learned sign language at a young age, but she hit a road block in her career as an interpreter because she refused to sign like a white person. She taught her daughters the black dialect of sign language, and thanks to the family’s fluency in sign language, they were accepted to move into the Toneybee Institute. There, they would gain a new family member, a chimp named Charlie, and they would teach him to sign and to live among humans.

Charlotte, the older daughter, attends the local high school, where her father teaches. Her younger sister, Callie, attends the junior high and longs for connection with anyone, but especially Charlie. And Laurel spends her days at the institute, loving Charlie as a son.

Although Charlotte is the book’s primary narrator, some chapters offer third-person narratives about how the other Freemans are coping with what quickly turns into a difficult year. In addition, there are excerpts from a narrative from 1929 by a woman who calls herself Nymphadora. Nymphadora also became involved in the studies at Toneybee, and it’s from her story that the racist roots of the institute’s work become evident.

Debut novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge takes on a lot of ideas in this engaging novel, and she acknowledges the complexity of each one. Charlotte falls in love for the first time with Adia, a girl at her school, and through Adia, she learns to find her voice for social justice. But she’s young, and her expressions are clumsy and possibly misdirected. Laurel knows Toneybee’s history, but she loves Charlie and the opportunity to mother him so much that she’s willing to overlook it. Her actions, and those of Nymphadora, raise questions about choice in the face of a corrupt system.

I think that much of this book revolves around the idea of choice and how free any of us are to choose. Who we are and who we will become are guided to some extent by our families, by society, and by our own internal drives, which we can’t understand. Charlie can only ever be a chimp, but living among humans alters some of his wants. He can’t help who he is. The Freemans have the ability to think through their choices, but they too face limits, some imposed by history, some by love, some by their own natures. I enjoyed watching each one grapple with these choices, and I appreciated that the right answers weren’t always clear.

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9 Responses to We Love You, Charlie Freeman

  1. Sob, sob, I didn’t love this book the way I wanted to. As you say, Greenidge takes on A LOT of ideas in the book, and to me the result was that no single one of them got the time and attention they deserved. When I got to the end I said “Huh,” because it didn’t feel like anything had been thrashed out enough for the book to be over already. BUT, I think that’s a good problem for a debut author to have, and I’m still pumped for Greenidge to write more books.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see what you mean about there being too many ideas here, and a few threads were definitely left hanging. But I preferred that over trying to make it too tidy and wrapping things up too much. It wasn’t a story that could have a neat ending without seeming false. That said, I wouldn’t argue with leaving out, say, Callie’s storyline and pressing a little harder on Laurel’s. Neither of those storylines were as fleshed out as they could have been, and I would have liked more about Laurel’s actions, the scientists’ responses, etc.

  2. Deb says:

    Have you read Karen Joy Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES? For some reason, as soon as the chimp was mentioned, I thought of that book, although the rest of the plot you’ve described doesn’t seem very similar. Are there any similarities?

  3. This book sounds awfully similar to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. The parents are scientists (psychologists, I believe) so they try an experiment: raise their kids with a chimp as if the chimp were a kid. Have you read it?

    • Teresa says:

      No, I haven’t read it, but it’s on my list. I might hold off for a while, until this one is foggier in my mind, although the comparison could be interesting.

      • Deb says:

        Just to chime back in: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES was one of the best books I read the year it was released. It’s wise, funny, sad, and poignant.

  4. lailaarch says:

    Well, I have to say I’m intrigued. Normally I avoid any novel with an animal in it. But I may have to make an exception for this one. It sounds delightfully complex and thought-provoking.

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