Emily Gray Tedrowe, Special to USA TODAY
Published 8:00 a.m. ET March 29, 2021
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The story of Weeksville, a free Black community founded in Brooklyn in the 19th century, is a gripping central piece of American history. The experiences of two extraordinary women there are brought to vivid life in “Libertie” (Algonquin, 336 pp., ★★★ out of four), a new novel by Kaitlyn Greenidge, whose debut, “We Love You, Charlie Freeman,” garnered both critical and commercial success.
The title character, named for the freedom her father hoped to find, is raised alone by her mother, Dr. Catherine Sampson — a riveting character inspired by Susan Smith McKinney Steward, one of the first Black women to become a medical doctor in the United States.
Dr. Sampson, light enough to pass as white, uses her training to treat the illnesses and injuries of those in her and Libertie’s town in Kings County. She also occasionally “raises the dead,” as in the novel’s harrowing opening scene, where an enslaved man has been rescued.
At her mother’s side, Libertie learns how to heal the sick using herbs such as yarrow, bitterwood and datura. In one unforgettable scene, the women of the town rush to the waterfront to take in brutalized Black children who have escaped the notorious Manhattan draft riots of the summer of 1863. This fuels Dr. Sampson to found a hospital for her community. Libertie is electrified by the power of their planning: “I have never in my life felt anything as powerful as whatever force was in that room while those women talked.”
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But growing up with the intense Dr. Sampson isn’t easy for a daughter, and soon Libertie chafes at the expectations of her brilliant mother. Instead of medicine, Libertie is drawn to music, to a handsome well-born doctor from Haiti, and to life outside her mother’s influence.
“Libertie’s” greatest success is the perceptive, poetic voice of its central character. Through Libertie’s eyes, we learn not just about her community’s inhabitants, but about the forces of nature — plants, the ocean, weather patterns — that shape lives, often continuing to make meaning after great loss.
Greenidge’s choice of narrator allows readers to closely witness both the historic work of Dr. Sampson as well as the inner life of her daughter. Although Dr. Sampson’s letters to Libertie continue both stories, the novel’s overall dramatic tension drops once its setting shifts to Haiti. In this section, some readers may miss the beautifully drawn cast of characters from Kings County.
Overall, however, “Libertie” shines as a deeply moving portrait of two very different women and the fraught but loving intertwining of their lives.
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