This novel by Kaitlyn Greenidge provides a glimpse into a bit of history that I was entirely unfamiliar with. It begins in Brooklyn at the time of the Civil War, where the title character, Libertie, is being raised by her single mother, medical doctor Catherine Sampson (a character loosely based on Susan McKinney Steward, one of the U.S.’s first Black woman doctors). Dr. Sampson dreams of Libertie someday becoming a doctor herself, so they can work together side by side. To that end, she pushed Libertie to excel, with seemingly little attention to what Libertie herself wants.
The book follows Libertie into her education and marriage, from Brooklyn to Ohio to Haiti. At each step, she learns a little more about the life her mother, with her single-minded focus, shielded her from. And she starts to figure out what she herself wants.
As a reader, I wondered about author Kaitlyn Greenidge’s choice to focus on daughter Libertie, rather than Dr. Sampson, who arguably would have a more obviously significant story. I think by focusing on Libertie, she’s able to tell a story of Black women’s achievement where racism and sexism are present but not quite as central as they might be to the story of Dr. Sampson’s initial barrier-breaking accomplishments. For Libertie, balancing her mother’s expectations with her own desires is as monumental as coping with societal obstacles, perhaps even more so because her mother has, to some extent, cleared a path. I also think it’s important to have Black stories that center relationships, rather than race, so, on the whole, I appreciated Greenidge’s choice here.
Overall, I liked the book, but I did wish for more. A lot of books I’ve read lately have felt longer than they needed to be, but I think this was shorter than it needed to be. The plot felt quite rushed at times, particularly in the last half of the book. Character motivations were not as clear as I would have liked, with choices seeming to come out of the blue. The reasons for the characters’ actions were explained, but I didn’t feel them. Although I think the mantra “show, don’t tell” is overused in that clear explanations of characters internal lives are not necessarily a narrative flaw, there were points where there was only telling, without much showing. It kept some of the developments from being entirely believable.
I think if a thread or two had been dropped or if the book had been longer, the characters would have had the time to breathe that was required for a book of this scope. I was glad to get a glimpse into this period, but a deeper dive would have been even better.