Kaitlyn Greenidge’s stunning and unique novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, begins as the story of a family that moves into the The Toneybee Institute for Ape Research to teach an abandoned young chimpanzee sign language—yet while the novel is very much about language, its focus veers from chimpanzees and delves into the institute’s dark history, which reveals that it has studied human as well as nonhuman animals, and the story broadens to encompass the nuances of language, race, family, loneliness, and love.
It’s 1990 when the Freeman family—parents Charles and Laurel, daughters Charlotte and Callie—move from Boston’s diverse Dorchester neighborhood to the very white Berkshires in western Massachusetts. For Charlotte, the first glimpse of their different new life comes as they get into their new car, paid for by the Institute, a late-model Volvo that “had a curt, upturned nose that looked smug and out of place beside the lazing sedans and subservient hatchbacks parked on our block.”
The Institute itself is large and foreboding, with security for, “you know, those animal protestors,” the research director, Dr. Paulsen, tells them. For the first time, Charlotte and Callie have their own rooms, and Charlie “lived behind a door in the living room. He had a large, oval-shaped space with low ceilings and no windows and no furniture.” Charlie’s room was filled with plants, which Charlotte finds “an empty gesture. Charlie had never known forests and yet Dr. Paulsen assumed some essential part of him pined for them.”
The Freemans open themselves to Charlie as an extension of their family. Her new brother, Charlotte observes, “was beautiful. Large, deep-set eyes, well-formed teeth, perfectly circular nostrils. But his chin was weak and recessive, and his eyes, as well formed as they were, as soft and full as his lashes grew, his eye never lit on anything for long. He was too nervous to look anything in the eye.”
During the family’s first night there, they hear Charlie cry, “a wail, so low, so long, so hollow, that it sounded like the most sorrowful sound in the world. It was a very old sound, something that had welled up from a deep and hidden place to whip and sting the world.” Charlie had been born to in the lab to a mother who, raised by humans herself, didn’t know how to be a mother and abandoned him. The Freemans had been, Laurel told her daughters, “chosen, over many other families, families with children who weren’t half as smart as we were, who didn’t even know how to sign. We, the Freemans … were going to teach sign language to a chimpanzee.”
Narrated in alternating points of view—focusing mainly on fourteen-year-old Charlotte and thirty-six-year-old Ellen Jericho, also known as Nymphadora and who tells her story from the year 1929, when the institute began—the novel deftly dives into each character as the narrative threads weave together in a complex tapestry that brings past and present together.
It is through Laurel’s perspective that we learn the Freeman family’s history of sign language; Laurel grew up as “the only black girl in the state of Maine … at least the only one in a one-hundred-mile radius.” Growing up black in rural Maine, Laurel felt that “the whole world was holding its breath around her.” It was in this “climate of reticence” in which she felt largely ignored that Laurel “grew to hate the failures of the spoken word,” and when she was ten years old, she simply stopped speaking. She wrote everything down until her family’s tree farm was visited by a group from the Hallelujah School for the Colored Deaf, and once she began learning to sign, she “discovered a universe where silence wasn’t cold and stony but warm and golden, where there was no need for speech.”
Laurel’s husband, Charles, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, loved that Laurel was from Maine, believing that “even the racism up there in the country seemed bucolic to him.” Once the family arrives at the Institute, while Laurel’s main focus is teaching Charlie, Charles teaches at the local high school, where Charlotte does her best to ignore him. Meanwhile, Callie uses food to assuage her loneliness, and when she is examined by Dr. Paulsen, who labels her “obese,” she empathizes with Charlie: “The thousand humiliations of the flesh, being stuck in a form that did not feel like yours. It must be horrible to be Charlie.”
And Charlie himself, like the human characters, battles loneliness and a fear of abandonment, and seeks to find his place in the world—and each member of the family seeks his love in their own ways. Laurel, desperate for his love and for him to learn, is caught breast-feeding Charlie. Charlotte tells only Charlie her deepest secret, signing to him about her best friend: “I love Adia Breitling. I like girls.” For Callie, Charlie is her only real friend, and while Charles “didn’t particularly care for Charlie” he was glad he’d brought them to the Institute: “it was something he could never have imagined, and for that, he was grateful.”
The stories of the Freeman family come together with that of Nymphadora when Charlotte finds an advance copy of a book detailing the time period when the Institute was founded, when Nymphadora posed nude for drawings by the Institute’s Dr. Gardner, whom she later learned was conducting other controversial experiments at the same time. “They’re evil, Aida,” Charlotte says when she shares the book. “They’re all racists.” A climatic Thanksgiving dinner, with the Freemans’ extended family and the Institute’s founder Julia Toneybee-Leroy collide past and present in ways that no one can ignore, and in ways that break the family apart.
In the novel’s wistful and beautifully rendered epilogue, the Freeman women embark on one of their annual visits to see Charlie at the Institute. While the endings for the Freemans and for Nymphadora may not be defined as happy, each feels true and real. We Love You, Charlie Freeman is a gripping, thought-provoking novel that employs the nuances of language to explore what it means, for human and nonhumans alike, to belong.