March 30, 2021
Blurb: Coming of age as a freeborn Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson is all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her mother, who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new and immersive novel will resonate with readers eager to understand our present through a deep, moving, and lyrical dive into our complicated past.
Can there be any greater heartache than a child who betrays their parent’s love? While this is not the theme of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s lush novel Libertie, it was definitely a thought I had many times as I read about the relationship between Libertie and her mother, Cathy, a free black doctor in Reconstruction-era New York.
The first scene is of a coffin arriving at Cathy’s clinic, being opened to reveal a dead black man, who Cathy brings back to life with a few bits of arnica. The man is Ben who will become known as Ben Daisy because he fell in love with Daisy when they were both slaves and became obsessed with her so much so that every sentence he utters contains the word Daisy. Ben Daisy is the symbol of freedom or, rather, its identity or lack thereof. And it is identity that is the foremost theme of Libertie.
Libertie is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman trying to find her own identity, understand herself in relation to the world around her, trying to find her identity through the people around her. This is why she is always asking questions and sometimes too impatient to listen to the answer if they do not fit some preconceived notion she already possesses.
It is Libertie’s impatience that I frequently grew impatient with. I would have almost suggested that she is an unreliable narrator in the way she misleads us, her reader, but an unreliable narrator knows the truth while Libertie frequently intentionally avoids or refuses to understand the truth or comes to her own sometimes skewed version of the truth.
Libertie’s first identification of self is through her mother. Her mother is a god, a healer, perfect and beautiful, but as Libertie grows older she sees that her mother is flawed like any human and this makes her so angry that she frequently hits out verbally or through actions she knows will inevitably hurt her mother.
Away at college, a chance for Libertie to become educated, a rare opportunity for a black woman at that time, Libertie fails. She does not fail because she’s not good enough but rather because she does not want to fulfill her mother’s ambition for her. Her sole goal is to understand who she is. This section of the novel fell flat for me. It seemed more like an opportunity for Libertie to pass judgement on those she felt were lacking except for singers Experience and Louise. And while others might say she was drawn to their music, I think she was drawn to passion, their passion.
The last third of the novel takes place in Haiti where Libertie has arrived with her husband Emmanuel, the young doctoral student of her mother’s. Libertie has run away rather than face her mother. It is here that Libertie, still seeking her own truths, discovers more about herself and freedom.
Libertie is an engaging, poetically written historical novel that will bring new settings and experiences to its reader. And sometimes frustration over a character who seems quicker to anger and judge than to possess empathy and openness. While it is a novel of Libertie finding herself, it is also a novel of how often we hurt those who love us the most in our steadfast pursuit of something more, sometimes and frequently intentionally. I am glad to have read it.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
4 out of 5 butterflies