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BookBrowse Reviews Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

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by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge X
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 336 pages

    Mar 2022, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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In her second novel, Kaitlyn Greenidge explores the bond between a mother and daughter living in Brooklyn during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

Kaitlyn Greenidge burst onto the literary scene in 2016 with her award-winning novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. This brilliant debut wove together an intimate story of family relationships with a larger narrative about the interplay of race, history and language. Now, Greenidge has followed up with an equally ambitious and no less compelling historical narrative that explores both family dynamics and the history of race in the Americas.

Libertie has always known, on some level, that she is participating in history. She is the daughter of Cathy Sampson, a Black woman practicing medicine during and after the Civil War in a community of free Blacks in Brooklyn. Dr. Sampson often uses her expertise to heal the physical scars of those who have escaped slavery (sadly, their mental scars are far more difficult to remedy). After the war, Dr. Sampson helps found a hospital for women, focusing on maternal care and reproductive education.

Throughout, Libertie is at her side, following her mother's example, learning from her, and believing in her dream: "[Y]ou and I will have a horse and carriage together, with 'Dr. Sampson and Daughter' written in gold on the side." But she is also increasingly aware that her physical presence might be at odds with that aspiration. Unlike Dr. Sampson, Libertie has very dark skin, and she comes to realize that her mother's patients make assumptions about her based on her skin color, and worse, that her mother seems to treat her differently out of deference to their colorist biases.

After a brief but disastrous sojourn to a medical program at an Ohio college — where she gains the loyal friendship of two other young women — Libertie returns home to her mother's practice. Too ashamed to admit her academic failings, she rushes into marriage with Emmanuel, Dr. Sampson's latest apprentice. Emmanuel is the son of an Episcopal bishop in Haiti, and he and his father share a vision of the island nation as a new frontier for Black people who have grown disillusioned with the limited prospects of life in the United States after the Civil War. Libertie, whose deceased father named her after his own visions of an African homeland for American Blacks in Liberia, grows excited about perhaps playing a role in this new chapter of history. But what she discovers in Haiti is a very different reality, involving animosity, dark family secrets, and, perhaps, the will to reconcile issues from her own past.

In her debut novel, Greenidge demonstrated her skillful storytelling powers, which are also clearly on display here. Libertie is at once a very individual chronicle of the changing, sometimes contentious relationship between a mother and a daughter with competing ambitions, and an exploration of much broader issues. These include the phenomenon of colorism, both within the African American community and more broadly, as well as the vigorous post-Emancipation philosophical debates about the best course forward for newly freed Black people and whether there was any prospect of true "liberty" on American shores.

These issues will certainly resonate with readers, but I suspect what will stay with them most are the impassioned words and sentiments between Cathy and Libertie, the mother and daughter who don't always see eye to eye but who clearly need one another. "The only good poem I've ever written is you," Dr. Sampson says, "A daughter is a poem. A daughter is a kind of psalm. You, in the world, responding to me, is the song I made. I cannot make another." In Libertie, Kaitlyn Greenidge paints a vivid portrait of a particular family at a particularly fraught time in history, the broad strokes of which are utterly timeless.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2021, and has been updated for the March 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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