Three months before, she and my father had sat us down and informed me and Callie that we were lucky. That we were about to embark on a great adventure. That we might even make scientific history. We had been 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, had been chosen to take part in an experiment and we were going to teach sign language to a chimpanzee.
I can say with all certainty that had this happened to my family, I would have raised holy Hell to get out of it. The thought of being anywhere near a wild animal gives me the willies. But the Freemans made the decision and they paid dearly for it. In Kaitlyn Greenidge’s exceedingly frustrating, but well-written and thoughtful book, We Love You, Charlie Freeman is a novel about what happens to a family when an experiment, meant to make history, causes nothing but chaos.
The book begins with the Freemans making their way to the Toneybee-Leroy Institute, a mysterious organization shrouded in scandal. Laurel Freeman and her family are offered the opportunity to teach a chimpanzee sign language. The catch: the chimp, named Charlie, has to live with them and become part of the family. (No. Just no.) Laurel thinks this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but her daughters, Charlotte and Callie, aren’t so sure.
There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this story, but Greenidge’s writing and flair for the descriptive kept the story moving and me engaged in what was happening to, and around, the Freemans. And although they all suffered greatly for their sacrifice to science, I didn’t like any of them. Not the one. Not even the youngest child and I have to thank the author for this. I normally like at least one person in a novel or short story, which helps me create a bond with a character. But I did not feel any kind of bond to anyone in the book but I still wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to know how Charlotte would navigate high school while exploring new friendships. I wanted to know why Laurel was so attached to Charlie so quickly. I wanted to know why Charles was so laid back about the whole thing. And I wanted to know why Callie was so unhappy. Most of all, I wanted to know if the Toneybee-Leroy Institute had good intentions when it chose the Freemans for its experiment.
Greenidge also did a great job of weaving the past and present in her novel. Her telling of the Toneybee-Leroy Institute’s first experiments within the black community made me angry, especially knowing that such things happened in real life. Nymphadora, a young black woman and Star of the Morning (which I had never heard of until I read this novel), was an interesting addition. Her friendship with Dr. Gardner, an anthropologist working for the Toneybee-Leroy Institute, unfolded in a way that made me hopeful. As for the Freemans, they truly did become undone in ways that threw me. Again, Greenidge did an excellent job of shocking me without using silly clichés that have been used a hundred times before.
One of the most compelling, and appalling, people in the novel was Ms. Toneybee-Leroy herself. Readers do get to meet her briefly and when we do, she does not disappoint. I won’t say too much about her here because I want you to read the book and judge her for yourself. And judge her you will.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman is a great read that will challenge how you feel about the Freemans and everyone involved in their experiment. I know it challenged me, but I am glad it did. Go out and grab a copy and make your own decision. I highly recommend it.