Race and language are thorny topics, and certainly not the fare of most coming-of-age novels. But in her disturbing debut, “We Love You, Charlie Freeman,” Kaitlyn Greenidge tackles them both, linking them inextricably to the story of a young African-American woman whose family becomes the focal point in an increasingly strange experiment.
Charlotte Freeman is a budding 14-year-old in 1990 when her family moves from the familiar confines of Dorchester to the private Toneybee Institute, in a largely white, Central Massachusetts town. The relocation is due to her mother’s new job teaching sign language to a chimpanzee at the appropriately tony institute, which has been devoted for decades to the study of great apes and their ties to humans. Her father is a schoolteacher who has been given a job nearby.
But the rationale for the luxurious new lodgings and other perks involves both Charlotte and her younger sister, 9-year-old Callie, as well. Although the sisters can both hear, they often communicate by signing, and so their presence is considered part of their mother’s effort.
It is all part of a grand social experiment: In their new home on the institute’s grounds, the family will be the sole participants in a project that calls for them to live with a chimp named Charlie, whom they are to regard as a brother and to teach to sign.
This awkward arrangement gets off to a bad start on Charlotte’s first day at her new school, when Charlie urinates on her clothes. In addition, Charlotte, who is already self-conscious about her developing body, discovers that she cannot help but stand out in class, being one of the few black students in it and one of the only ones not bused in.
The rocky start grows more uncomfortable —
Adria and Charlotte become close, embarking on a sexual relationship that Adria barely acknowledges. But if Adria stays closeted about her own sexuality, her drive for Charlotte to be more candid about her life does not let up.
This leads to one of the main crises of the novel, when Charlotte discovers a book detailing older work from the institute. In a parallel story, which begins in 1929, the roots of that study unfold. In chapters that are interspersed with those of the Freeman family saga, a smart, bitter African-American woman tells of a secret sisterhood dedicated to uplifting the women of her community through discipline and self-denial, in order “to teach other Negro women how to shine.”
Partly because she is a an orphan and a loner, this woman, whose sisterhood name is Nymphadora, is assigned by the group to confront a white researcher from the Toneybee who has been making African-American children uncomfortable by drawing them. The deal they strike is that she will pose instead for the quiet, nerdy Dr. Gardner. With his unassuming manner, he gets beneath her guarded reserve, with disastrous results.
Adria and Charlotte start putting things together, finding parallels between the old work and the new. Adria urges her friend to confront the institute’s founder, the elderly Julia Toneybee-Leroy, about the inherent racism of her studies.
That’s a lot to pack into a novel, but Greenidge, an Arlington native whose sister Kirsten’s Obie Award-winning play, “Milk like Sugar,’’ just closed at the Huntington, succeeds in large part because her voices are so dead-on. Whether it is Charlotte, swooning and conflicted over Adria or her sister, or Nymphadora trying to be clear-eyed about Gardner, these narratives are convincing and utterly engaging. Even little sister Callie’s chapters follow their own crazy logic, all of which lead up to a perhaps inevitable present in which so much is still left unsaid.
WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN
By Kaitlyn Greenidge. Algonquin, 326 pp., $25.95
Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.