Another book with a fantastic premise and strong start that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. The novel establishes 1954, post-Korean War, Jim Crow America as Lovecraftian horror for its African American characters.
Each chapter/section explores the point of view of a member of the (extended) Turner family and their dealings with some batshit white people who are wizards of a sort. I’ve seen some readers refer to the book as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but the stories are too closely connected narratively and chronologically. The upside of the structure is that each member of the family has a moment in the spotlight, a chance to illustrate how living in this time as a black person has shaped the extent to which they can pursue their dreams. The downside is that you may prefer some characters’ perspectives than others and feel as if you don’t get to know any one character enough. Though the chapters are connected, the novel can also feel disjointed.
Another plus is the black SF fans in the book whose love of the genre is complicated by its persistent racism (Lovecraft himself wrote racist material). It is a sort of sweet revenge to put these characters in charge and watch them respond to and take control of the very forces being used to make them tools.
(This bit is a tad spoilery, but I’ve kept it as vague as possible). I struggled with one chapter in which the protagonist is able, through magic, to transform physically into a white person. Predictably, she is treated radically different, even in a northern city like Chicago, where much of the novel is set. However, I feel this chapter plays into the notion that all black people secretly want to be white. It also illustrates something we already know: that white people in America are privileged. The white characters are the ones who need to get woke.
Mostly this book made me think about how little has changed in some respects. A few characters in the novel work on something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide whose purpose is to help black people know where safe(r) spaces in the country are while traveling (or conversely, where to steer clear of absolutely). The guide is based on a real thing, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Jim Crow may be over, but as events in the past decades indicate, it is still less safe for a black person to travel or simply be in this country.
This novel quickly went from very good to fantastic. The premise and sample interested me immediately–an African American family who speaks sign language(s) moves to a scientific institute as part of a study to see if chimps (one in particular, the titular Charlie) can learn to sign.
At first it feels almost quirky; the first point of view we’re given is that of Charlotte, the older of two daughters in the family. She is not happy about her parents’ decision to move the family from Boston to rural New England. But as soon as they arrive at the institute, it’s clear something with this situation will not be kosher. Much of the book you wait for the other shoe to drop, and as soon as additional points of view from the past and present emerge and repeat, that dread becomes specific until the reality confirms it.
Each family member relates to Charlie–or doesn’t–in their own way. Charlotte is standoffish and more concerned with fitting in at the almost entirely white school she begins attending–a hallmark of the town’s past (and present) segregation. She begrudgingly becomes friends with the only other black girl and hangs out with her and her mother, who both appear to be radicals. Younger sister Callie is left to her own devices and does her best to be a “big sister” to Charlie; in the meantime, food becomes her comfort. Mother Laurel has the tightest bond with Charlie–too tight, as Charlotte first discovers. Father Charles loves math and Laurel, and his devotion to her is tested by her bond with Charlie.
Alongside the family drama come flashes of the past when the institute first opened. The lens is that of a black woman who begins a disastrous relationship with one of the institute’s scientists–a man who proclaims he does not believe white people are biologically better than black people but whose slowly revealed study of local black people proves otherwise. Past and present merge and culminate in one bizarre Thanksgiving dinner, followed by a telling letter written by the institute’s foundress (I’m making this word up).
The novel presents one of the most nuanced contemporary portraits of race in America that I’ve read. Everything stems from the characters, who are deftly drawn, and the structure and lovely prose make it an engaging and subtle read. We Love You, Charlie Freeman earns my “recommend like whoa” tag, and I look forward to seeing more from this author.