April 01, 2021


By Kaitlyn Greenidge
Review by
Passionate and brilliantly written, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel shines a light on a part of history still unknown by far too many.
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There’s plenty of Civil War fiction out there; it’s a seemingly bottomless category of novels exploring people both prominent and obscure whose lives are touched in some way by the war. But with the exception of books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, only recently have novels about enslaved or freeborn Black people during the war and Reconstruction become prominent. With its revelatory history and fresh perspectives, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s splendid Libertie is a welcome addition to the canon.

Greenidge’s second novel (after 2016’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman) was inspired by the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first woman in New York to earn a medical degree, and by one of her children, a daughter who moved to Haiti upon her marriage. In Libertie, they’re transformed into Dr. Kathy Sampson and the titular narrator Libertie, whose incredible story is shaped by her own choices as well as other people’s designs.

The novel begins just before the war in a free Black community in Brooklyn, a borough that’s still mostly farmland. As a child, Libertie marvels at her mother’s diligence, stoicism and mystifying ability to heal. But as Libertie grows up, Greenidge masterfully details the way the girl begins to separate herself from her mother and find her own path. Libertie ventures from Brooklyn to one of the new all-Black colleges that arises after the war, then marries her mother’s kind and intelligent assistant and drops out of school. 

Libertie’s marriage leads to a rare fit of histrionics on Dr. Sampson’s part, but this negative reaction to Libertie's relocation to Haiti, a country untroubled by white rule, eventually proves justified. The Haitian scenes allow Greenidge to explore the grinding universality of patriarchy, but this is balanced by Libertie’s determination to live her best life.

Passionate and brilliantly written, Libertie shines a light on a part of history still unknown by far too many but that is now getting the finest treatment.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Kaitlyn Greenidge discusses her novel’s little-known history and the legacy of Toni Morrison, the “mother of everything.”

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By Kaitlyn Greenidge
ISBN 9781616207014

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