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Summary and book reviews of Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Libertie

by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge X
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 15, 2022, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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About this Book

Book Summary

The #1 Indie Next Pick for April 2021 and the selection of three national book clubs, Kaitlyn Greenidge's Libertie shares an unforgettable story about what "freedom" looked like for Black women just after the Civil War.

Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson was all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, had a vision for their future together: Libertie would 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 novel resonates in our times and is perfect for readers of Brit Bennett, Min Jin Lee, and Yaa Gyasi.

1860

I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. "It still didn't help him much, my love," she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That's how I knew she was magic.

The time I saw Mama raise a man from the dead, it was close to dusk. Mama and her nurse, Lenore, were in her office—Mama with her little greasy glasses on the tip of her nose, balancing the books, and Lenore banking the fire. That was the rule in Mama's office—the fire was kept burning from dawn till after dinner, and we never let it go out completely. Even on the hottest days, when my linen collar stuck to the back of my neck and the belly of Lenore's apron was stained with sweat, a mess of logs and twigs was lit up down there, waiting.

When the dead man came, it was spring. I was playing on the stoop. I'd broken a stick off the mulberry bush, so young it had resisted the pull of my fist. I'd had to work for it. Once I'd wrenched it off, I stripped the bark and rubbed the wet wood underneath on the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Libertie grew out of Kaitlyn Greenidge's research about Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward and her daughter. Although the characters take their origins from Steward and her daughter Anna, Greenidge expands deeply on the historical record. Why do you think she chose to write this as fiction rather than nonfiction? How does that affect what you take away from the novel?
  2. How does Cathy Sampson's skin color affect what she is able to do?
  3. Ben Daisy tells Libertie that his girlfriend "said if she were ever free, she'd spend all day covered in silk and she'd paint her face pretty ... She knew what she would do with freedom. It wasn't man's work she'd do with freedom. Not like your mama. She knew better than that." And Emmanuel Chase also has a ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...continued

Full Review Members Only (612 words).

(Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

Media Reviews

New York Times
[A] feat of monumental thematic imagination...the world of Kings County — modern-day Brooklyn — comes to life through vivid, textured details...The sheer force of Greenidge’s vision...gives us hope.

Ms. Magazine
[A] fiercely gorgeous, complex portrait of life for Black women during the Reconstruction era ... Greenidge perfectly weds the precision of historical details and context with fantastical elements of myth and magic ...Libertie is a beautifully written meditation on Black liberation and imagination. It is exquisite historical fiction that lovingly reminds us to reassess our own present-day commitments to fighting for, and practicing, freedom.

Star Tribune - Jackie Thomas-Kennedy
"There is a mystic heaviness to Libertie's language — her speech, her writing, her thoughts — and Greenidge structures the novel in sections hinging on significant plot points: the death of a patient, the founding of a hospital, traveling to college, getting married and giving birth. The spectrum of Black skin color surfaces again and again, an urgent reminder that the word "colored," which appears throughout the work, is an oversimplification of a nuanced, individuated experience.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Greenidge delivers another genius work of radical historical fiction...This pièce de résistance is so immaculately orchestrated that each character, each setting, and each sentence sings.

Booklist (starred review)
Few novels have as strong a sense of place as this fascinating blend of magical realism and African American historical fiction...Greenidge succeeds beautifully at presenting the complexities of an intense mother-daughter bond...Greenidge creates a richly layered tapestry of Black communal life, notably Black female life, and the inevitable contradictions and compromises of 'freedom.'

School Library Journal (starred review)
Stunning...This engaging novel immerses readers in a world rich with historical detail that brings to life lesser-known aspects of post–Civil War American history, such as Black women in medicine and the relationship between Haiti and the United States. This will appeal to teenage fans of adult authors like Toni Morrison, Brit Bennett, and Yaa Gyasi.

Kirkus Reviews
Greenidge explores issues that are still real today while also inviting readers into historical moments that will be new to many...[she] reminds us that music that has become so much a part of the American canon was born in the fields, a music made by enslaved Black people among enslaved Black people. Greenidge shows us aspects of history we seldom see in contemporary fiction.

Author Blurb Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone
This is one of the most thoughtful and amazingly beautiful books I've read all year. Kaitlyn Greenidge is a master storyteller.

Author Blurb Mira Jacob, author of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
Pure brilliance. So much will be written about Kaitlyn Greenidge's Libertie—how it blends history and magic into a new kind of telling, how it spins the past to draw deft circles around our present—but none of it will measure up to the singular joy of reading this book.

Author Blurb Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life
In this singular novel, Kaitlyn Greenidge confronts the anonymizing forces of history with her formidable gifts. Libertie is a glorious, piercing song for the ages—fierce, brilliant, and utterly free.

Author Blurb Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
I want to say that Kaitlyn Greenidge's Libertie is a glorious diasporic literary song, but the novel is so much more than that. A book so deeply invested in the politics and place of silence is one of the most melodious books I've read in decades. The ambition in Libertie is only exceeded by Greenidge's skill. This is it.

Reader Reviews

Betty Taylor

Interesting piece of history
“Libertie” was hard for me to get into. While the writing itself is beautiful, the story did not draw me in. While I enjoyed the first portion of the book, I lost interest after Libertie ran off to get married. It did have some very interesting ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Lost (and Found) Community of Weeksville

Aerial view of intact houses in Weeksville neighborhoodGreenidge's character Dr. Cathy Sampson in Libertie is based on the real-life story of Dr. Susan McKinney Steward, the first Black woman to become a medical doctor in New York State. The novel's setting, meanwhile, is based on the historical settlement of Weeksville, which was located in what is now the Crown Heights neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

Weeksville was founded in 1827, shortly after New York abolished slavery, and was named after longshoreman James Weeks, who bought several plots of land in the area from Black abolitionist Henry C. Thompson. The settlement flourished and became a destination for free Blacks and newly escaped enslaved people, especially during the decades before the Emancipation ...

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