In brief: Libertie’s mother wants her to be just like her – a female doctor. But Libertie’s heart isn’t in it, and having darker skin than her mother means she is denied many freedoms. Will Libertie find her own freedom somewhere?
The good: Beautiful writing with a heroine that is intriguing and frustrating.
The not-so-good: The section in Haiti didn’t interest me as much.
Why I chose it: Sounded like an interesting read. Thank you to Allen & Unwin for the copy.
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (Allen & Unwin)
Setting: America (Brooklyn and Ohio), Haiti
Rating: 8 out of 10
Libertie is an engrossing read with lyrical, beautiful writing. It’s a haunting story of a young Black woman growing up in post-Civil War America as a free woman, but denied many of her rights because of her skin colour.
Libertie (named after her father’s interest in a free country for Negroes in Liberia) has always lived in her mother’s shadow. Her mother is a doctor, with her lighter skin offering her many freedoms that Libertie is denied. Her mother dreams of the day the two can work side by side as doctors, but doesn’t see white women recoiling from Libertie nor notice that Libertie’s heart is not in medicine. Libertie tries to be a keen student, but she knows that she doesn’t have the passion that drives her mother. Seeing her mother unable to cure some people, such as Ben Daisy who escaped from the south, plants seeds of doubt in Libertie’s mind. Libertie is everything to her mother, but Libertie chafes against her mother’s direction and assertions. Sent to an all-Black college in Ohio, Libertie finds that her mind is not on her studies in medicine and finds joy in music instead. Returning home, she finds herself enamoured of her mother’s protegee, Emmanuel. Can he offer the freedom she craves in Haiti? Or will Libertie need to find it on her own?
I really enjoyed the majority of the novel, but did lose interest when the setting moved to Haiti. The focus on Libertie tended to drift away as she became less interested in Emmanuel and his family. Her drawing away from them was necessary for her to define herself and what she wanted from life, but it all felt a little detached and far away. In contrast, Libertie’s time with her mother growing up and at college felt very focused and in close range. The reader is privy to every thought of Libertie, including those that question her mother and others in position of power. Through Libertie’s eyes, the reader gets an idea of what it is like to be Black during that time period. Despite being free, Libertie is denied a seat in a stagecoach (instead, she is ordered to ride on the roof for miles) and has people staring at her because of the colour of her skin. In Haiti, she is also an anomaly because of her skin, her new family and that she doesn’t speak the language. Her outsider status continues, just as her husband tells her that Haiti is the place for Black people. There, Libertie sees things she disagrees with and gains the strength to call it out. In that way, she achieves her own freedom and accepts her past.
The writing in Libertie is simply stunning, evoking emotion and a clear sense of the setting. The characters are just as fascinating. Libertie can make silly choices and be infuriating at times, but you can’t help but cheer her on. Her mother is all business, but glimpses of her deep love for Libertie shine through in unexpected ways. It’s a thought provoking read of interpretations of freedom as well as a coming of age story.