Wednesday, January 6, 2021

#BookReview: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

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“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.” —Mira Jacob, author of Good Talk  

The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman returns with an unforgettable story about the meaning of freedom.
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.
I was not sure what to expect when I plunked Libertie from my staggering TBR. I had not read Kaitlyn Greenidge before, but I was drawn to both the themes in the jacket description and the novel’s unique setting. I have not encountered many stories set in Haiti, and I could not resist jumping at the opportunity to indulge my interest in culturally diverse historicals.

Greenidge’s novel is not a strict biographic fiction, but both Cathy and Libertie Sampson are modeled on real people. The inspiration for Dr. Cathy Sampson came from the life and achievements of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in New York state. Dr. Steward had two children with her first husband, Rev. William G. McKinney, and while I could not find much about either online, I did discover a New York news clipping announcing the marriage of Anna M. McKinney to Louis Holly of Port-au-Prince.

I do not know how Greenidge developed her fiction, but I love how she draped her ideas around authentic experiences. The author put her own spin on the story to spotlight notions of race, colorism, gender, feminism, autonomy, and freedom, but the structure of the novel is a compliment to the lives that sparked Greenidge’s imagination in the first place. I do not mean to downplay the thematic material, the underlying motifs of this novel touched my heart, but I feel the decision to explore these ideas through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship took this story to another level.

A perceptive, thought-provoking, and illuminating narrative, Libertie is a story well-worth seeking out.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 6, 2021

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