A complicated mother and daughter relationship drives this beautiful coming of age story
I love coming of age stories, and Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge did not disappoint. Set around the US Civil War, the book is the story of Libertie, a free-born black young girl in the 1860s. Inspired by the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first black woman to become a medical doctor in New York State, this novel is a story about a mother’s mission to ensure that her daughter lives an exemplary life. It’s also about a daughter’s struggle to break free from her mother’s expectations.
The book is told from Libertie’s perspective. It starts as she watches her mom revive a black man who had been smuggled in a coffin from a slave state into their Kings County home. That is the moment that young Libertie “knew [her mom] was magic.” This experience, and the events that transpired after, caused a lasting impression on young Libertie.
Eventually, we get to know Libertie as an angsty teenager. She is desperately trying to find her own path and veer away from the life her mother planned for her. Their relationship turns adversarial because they are fundamentally so different in so many ways, and they are both too stubborn to recognize it.
Libertie doesn’t understand her mom’s world and doesn’t feel like she belongs there. She craves her mother’s approval and affection and is terrified of showing her hesitation. She is outwardly bold but also secretly insecure.
Her mother, Dr. Sampson, wants Libertie to follow in her footsteps. In her mission to give her daughter the best opportunity for success, she fails to recognize her child’s struggles and denies Libertie’s need for self-determination. It’s the ultimate clash of idealism versus practicality and experience versus innocence. The only way to save their relationship is for both of them to recognize their own shortcomings, but will they?
There is so much more to this story than their adversity
The story of their relationship is multilayered and complex. This book is about expectations, the ones we have for ourselves, the ones our loved ones have for us, and we have for them, and the ones society imposes on us. It’s about different types of feminism and the search for freedom.
This book is also about race, colorism, and religion. The fictional recount that Greenidge creates for us feels so authentic. It transported me to times I did not live and showed me struggles I have not experienced with the most intimate and insightful approach.
Even though this book was set in the 1860s, it’s so modern and relevant. I loved the richness of all the historical and cultural references. Greenidge is skillful and precise with her words and descriptions. This book was a beautiful read. Greenidge has definitely gained a new fan!
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge is out now.
[Content warning: this book described a scene of suicide and mentions sexual assault.]