“Of course it doesn’t make any sense,” she told us. “Nothing about racism makes sense. If it made sense, it would mean it was real, it was the truth.”
I succeeded in avoiding any spoilers for this book, and boy, am I glad that I did. Even in trying to describe it to my husband, I can feel my summary falling woefully short. It isn't an easy novel to explain. The titular character is a chimp with abandonment issues, who connects with humans more than other members of his species, despite their fundamental differences. This is a running theme in the novel; the struggle to find your tribe, your people, and even harder than that, maintain it, and how relentlessly wearying that pursuit can be. Every character is searching for a place to belong, a person to belong to. Whether they find it is debatable. And even if they have, what have they lost in the discovery?
Truth be told, the premise made - still makes - me uncomfortable. But I enjoyed that discomfort. It meant that I couldn't engage with the plot on autopilot. That I was being forced to witness, and thus, contemplate parallels I've always found repulsive and degrading - it brought a more complicated humanity to the characters who espouse those beliefs, albeit intentionally or unintentionally. It is infuriating and embarrassing, and yet you have to find the dignity and strength to press on, because what other choice is there?
One of the most important things Mumma drilled into me was never to let a white person think that they knew you. In Spring City, Mumma and Pop and all the other Stars and Saturnites were planets, possessing deep and mysterious seas, complicated deserts, forests of of knowledge and pain. But step across the border into Courtland County and they were little more than rocks, pebbles really, to the white people that lived there. Small and insignificant, without the weight or density to command even the smallest orbit. Mumma told me that this underestimation was an advantage. It meant you could do things white people would never even know about. Your invisibility was your power.
The Freeman family - Laurel, Charles, and their daughters Charlotte and Callie - are chosen to participate in a groundbreaking scientific study at a research facility in a very white suburb of Boston. They are assigned a chimp, Charlie, and charged with not only helping him assimilate into their family, but learn how to speak sign language. It's a study many years in the making after several failed attempts, and the anticipation surrounding the experiment is palpable - or incredibly awkward, depending on which Freeman you're talking to. What follows is a tale that feels rooted in (dubious) science, laced with the potential for tragedy, but periodically adopts the whimsy of a children's cartoon: days and nights spent feeding and dressing Charlie, who grins and screams and clings to his new mother; raucous family dinners; the myriad tiny indignities of living in such intimate quarters with a wild animal.
Greenidge doesn’t shy away from the heavy racial implications of this experiment, but she draws the line at crafting a plot that droops too low beneath the weight of its own righteousness. Her characters are human first, however flawed, misled, or desperately lonely they might be. We change points of view often; we make leaps through time and place. While this story feels in no way incomplete, there is much we are not privy to; answers to questions we are not aware of the need to ask. I felt a peculiar distance from her characters, only able to just make out a quirk of their brow or a curl of their lip before they were obscured again, as if behind a translucent film, a jungle brush. They are still somewhat mysterious to me, these Freemans, and I like them that way. Greenidge doesn’t reduce them to hapless victims; easy specimens. They have interiority, depth, purpose. And they are not ours to own.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (division of Workman Publishing), New York, NY, 2016.