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Book Review: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Libertie, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill on March 15, 2021, is a fictional novel about a young girl by the name of Libertie, who strives to find her place in the world. She seeks to discover what freedom truly is and what it means for her. It is a coming-of-age story centered around the children and grandchildren of slaves, figuring out what freedom means for themselves and to themselves. It is a story of love between mothers, daughters, friends, lovers and oneself. It is a discovery of oneself and one’s very being.

Greenidge writes this book with well-developed characters of different kinds, a variety in her subjects. She writes of black Americans and Haitians in the life of her protagonist, Libertie, for whom the book is named. While she does use old language, that is thought of as forbidden and inappropriate in today’s culture, it is used in a historical and cultural context, so these can be fitting. This novel is an exploration of the descendants of slaves, and some ex-slaves, discovering what freedom really means for themselves. Every character in this novel handles this exploration in distinct and unique ways, which is a great triumph for the author to speak from originality. In one instance, a character states, “’We have in our midst, a group of men, and a few women, who, upon discovering our community and life here in freedom, find their souls still oppressed. Their bodies are here with us in emancipation, but their minds are not free. Their spirits have not recovered from the degradation of enslavement, despite the many hardships and privations they have suffered to come here’” (Greenridge, 56). This quote reveals that freedom is a theme at the very heart of this novel, something not fully understood but sought after.

Another great triumph of this novel is the manner in which the author portrays the complexity and difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship. During the good times of their relationship, Dr. Sampson says wonderful things about her daughter. Such as, “’The only good poem I’ve ever written is you. 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’” (Greenridge). However, Libertie’s relationship with her mother is not straightforward, not conventional, and not always positive. Mama, as Libertie refers to her, is a doctor, a remarkable feat for a person of color in that age. She is a strong, independent, and intelligent woman, but she also has a lot of expectations and pressure that she bestows upon her young daughter. This causes a lot of strife and disagreements between the two. They fight and argue over many topics and issues through the course of the novel. During one such time, Libertie says to herself, “Mama had made it clear my anger was useless, unbecoming, superfluous in this world” (Greenridge). Libertie has a lot of anger in life, directed in many places, especially towards the world and her mother. She loves her mother wholly and fully, though they do have their moments. Greenridge writes these interactions and this relationship in a beautiful way, full of conversations and situations that feel authentic and realistic to read.

While this book is written by a same voice author, that is an author of color writing about another person of color, there is language that is questionable still used throughout this novel. Some readers might be offended by the “n” word and other racial slurs, such as the main character often being referred to as “Black Gal”. It is questionable, and up to opinion as to whether this is an appropriate usage of the language. For the most part, today’s society does not consider these words or other terms like them to be appropriate or kind. However, because this novel does take place in the Reconstructionist era, these words are historically and culturally accurate to what would have been used. It is certainty up for debate whether these words have a place in modern literature, even when the setting may call for their usage. However, Kaitlyn Greenidge does use these terms throughout the novel, but she does so in a way that does not attack other people of color. The use does not seem inappropriate. Her usage of these terms seems to be for historical accuracy and nothing more.

Libertie is a quick read, a story that pulls the reader in. It is full of philosophical questions and self-discovery, making for an interesting read. As only Greenridge’s second novel, it is a feat!

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