The 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.