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Monday, March 29, 2021

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Libertie by Kaityn Greenidge
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN 9781616207014
Hardcover, $26.95, 336 pages

Kaitlyn Greenidge's historical novel Libertie is the second book I've read in two weeks dealing with the role of women in the Civil War era (Dorothy Wickenden's nonfiction The Agitators about the lives of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward and Martha Wright is the other), and it's a revelation.

As the novel opens, Libertie is a dark-skinned Black 11 year-old daughter of Cathy, a light-skinned Black female physician living in Brooklyn during the Civil War. Libertie's father is dead, and in addition to caring for the people of her community, Cathy also aids people on the Underground Railroad.

Madame Elizabeth, whose husband is an undertaker, brings Cathy an escaped slave hiding in a coffin. Cathy resusitates the man, Ben, and then Ben is sent to live in town with other escaped men. Libertie is drawn to Ben, and he has a strong effect on her.

In one striking passage in 1863, during what became known as the New York Draft Riots, mobs of Irish people burned down a Black children's orphange to protest being drafted to fight in the Civil War, and the children that could be saved were rowed across the river to Brooklyn where Cathy and Elizabeth and others rushed to help the refugees. I don't recall learning about this horrifying event in history class.

Cathy and other Black women formed the Ladies' Intelligence Society, and they planned to build a hospital to treat Black people, with a focus on women's health issues. Soon, she began to treat white women who turned to Cathy with reproductive issues they couldn't get help with in their own communities. They allowed Cathy, with her light skin, to treat them, but many wouldn't allow the dark-skinned Libertie to touch them.

Cathy arranged for Libertie to attend a Black college in Ohio to train to become a doctor like herself. While at school, Libertie does not get the grades necessary to continue, and she is afraid to tell her mother when she returns home. 

Libertie meets the doctor who is now assisting her mother, and she agrees to marry him and move to Haiti, where his father and sister have fled the scourge of slavery in the United States. Cathy is furious that the dreams she had for her daughter are gone, that Libertie has chosen to be a wife and mother as her life's ambition.

Adjusting to life in Haiti is difficult for Libertie, her father-in-law and sister-in-law do not treat her kindly, and her husband appears too busy to notice. She becomes attached to TiMe, the family servant, and discovers a troubling situation, one she will not ignore.

Libertie tells her own story here, and people who love Toni Morrison's novels will find themselves drawn to Kaitlyn Greenidge's lyrical style of writing, with an element of magic involved. Libertie has a strong mother-daughter story at its core, and I for one would love to read Cathy's own story told by her as well.

We read to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and read historical fiction to feel how people lived in other times other than ours, and Libertie accomplishes both of those brilliantly. I can see why so many publications called it one of the most anticipated books of 2021. Libertie the book and Libertie the person are unforgettable.

Thanks to Algonquin Books for putting me on Kaitlyn Greenidge's book tour.

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