Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Review: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Parents have dreams for their children. But we need to be careful to nurture our children's dreams even if, or perhaps more importantly when, they do not match the dreams we have for them. We can guide and suggest, but in the end, it is not our life to lead. It is our children's. This is hard to face under normal conditions but when there are many other extenuating circumstances, it must be that much harder. Kaitlyn Greenidge's second novel, Libertie, shows how hard it is for a child to go against her mother's dreams and expectations and reach for her own.

Set in Brooklyn and Haiti, this historical novel tells the story of Libertie, the dark skinned daughter of a light skinned, female, Black doctor who rejects her mother’s profession and instead marries and moves to Haiti. The story opens with Libertie watching as her mother saves an escaped enslaved man; at least physically she saves him. And young Libertie is awed by her mother's power but also horrified at the emotional cost, both to her mother and to the patient. As she eventually leaves home for medical school, she finds that she is drawn more to music than medicine, knowing that she is unwilling and unable to pay the emotional cost of healing, especially of failing to heal the whole person. She cannot and will not follow in her mother's footsteps, choosing instead a different path, one that will provide her with her own brand of heartache.

This is a novel of strong women. In fact, it is inspired by the first black, female doctor in the US and her daughter. Greenidge writes movingly of mother daughter dynamics at the tail end of the Civil War. She has drawn the realities of the time into the text seamlessly, richly detailing the community and the challenges facing women, and especially a dark skinned woman like Libertie in the time of Reconstruction. Place is beautifully evoked here although the vast differences in the Brooklyn setting and the Haiti setting make this feel a little like two different novels mashed together and the travel to Haiti turns the novel toward the gothic and atmospheric with hints of Jane Eyre. Libertie's search for independence is moving and the reader sees it from her own perspective through the first person narration. The novel is a bit slow moving and contemplative with a lot of story lines, not all of which get a full enough treatment. Over all though, this is a powerful look at the high cost of slavery, colorism, and liberation in a story about family relationships, both mother daughter and husband wife, and about freedom and becoming.

This is one of the books chosen for the Women's National Book Association Great Group Reads list for 2022. (And yes, I stole a line or two from the description on that page for my review but since I wrote those descriptions, I consider that fair game.)

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