Kaitlyn Greenidge's Libertie - Historical Fiction that Resonates
by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Thanks to Partner Algonquin Books and NetGalley for the digital ARC of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, March 30.
I jumped on the chance to read an early copy of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie. I read her first book, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, for the 2016 Tournament of Books, and I thought it was a phenomenal work with a core of historical fiction: it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, with an edge of the truly strange.
Libertie has some of those same roots. The title character and protagonist, Libertie Sampson, was born free, in a Black community just outside Brooklyn at the beginning of the Civil War. She lives with her mother, a doctor, and has known since early childhood that her mother dreamed that Libertie would one day also be a doctor.
As the book opens, Libertie learns of her mother’s other abilities when she raises from the dead Mr. Ben, a man escaping from slavery after the loss of the woman he loves.
"That's how I knew she was magic."
Mr. Ben is also, however, the catalyst for Libertie learning about her mother’s all-too-real weaknesses—she is able to heal Mr. Ben’s body but not his mind or spirit, a failure that damages her reputation in the community.
This is also the incident that begins Libertie’s separation from her mother: Libertie becomes curious about love and companionship. She wants to understand the friendships that her mother is never able to cultivate, too entrenched in logic and fact to risk the vulnerability of warmth, the need to take down her protective shell to reach out for others.
When Libertie goes to college, set on a path in medicine, she finds herself for the first time outside her mother’s sphere of influence. She finds friends who are musicians and neglects her studies in favor of their pure passion for their art. Eventually, she seeks safety and warmth in love and flees her mother’s disapproval.
Libertie bluntly addresses colorism—while Libertie’s mother is light skinned, Libertie herself is quite dark—racism, misogyny, and power structures that require someone to occupy the lowest rung in a hierarchy. Libertie sees the hopes of her community upon the start of the Civil War and the way those hopes are betrayed by their white, Northern neighbors. She sees the hopes of her new community in Haiti, which supposedly is built on equality and on honoring all races, but which in reality victimizes the most vulnerable populations. She sees her own hopes, of refuge in love and friendship, dashed by an inability to let go of the injustices of the past.
Above all, for me, this book is about a girl and her mother, about the ways that their lives are intertwined and must somehow separate but continue to run parallel paths, twisted together by disappointment and hope, resentment and love.
There is SO much to adore about this book, and I definitely found it captivating. I did, at times (particularly in the second half of the novel), find some connections missing, some places where Libertie said what she felt but I didn't feel it, where actions were not always tied tightly to their causes or their effects.
Those slight flaws did not, however, interfere with my overall feelings about the novel, which asks questions that still feel relevant but also illuminate our history. You will not regret taking an opportunity to read Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie.
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