We Love You, Charlie Freeman and Sensibility in Scene

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge is about a Black family in the 90s who agrees to teach sign language to a chimpanzee. About half of the time, the story follows teenage Charlotte and her family during the time of the linguistic experiment. The other chapters explore older stories, often relating to the institute running the experiment and its racist history. 

I’m interested in a very early scene, when we first meet the Freeman family and they are driving to the Toneybee Institute, where they will live with the chimpanzee, for the first time. 

The new car was a 1991 silver Volvo station wagon, next year’s model. The Toneybee Institute paid for it. It had a curt, upturned nose that looked smug and out of place beside the lazing sedans and subservient hatchbacks parked on our block. Being inside the Volvo felt like we were in public. None of us could bring ourselves to speak. We were all too humbled by the leather interiors. 

My mother, in the driver’s seat, adjusted her rearview mirror. My younger sister, Callie, kept playing with the automatic windows until my mother told her to stop. Up in the front seat, my father tugged on his fingers one by one, trying to crack his knuckles, but the cartilage wouldn’t break. I shifted my legs, and the leather skin of the seat stuck to the backs of my thighs, made a slow, painful smack as I leaned forward.

I like the sensibility of the scene, the way it is canted to let us know that what might seem positive is actually quite ominous. This happens primarily because the stereotypically “good” things about the situation don’t reflect in the way they are described. This creates a dissonance in the reading experience—it’s unsettling, uncomfortable. And so we feel the discomfort of the family more intensely than if we the writer told us in a more straightforward way or with a scene that would more universally considered “bad.” 

First, let’s look at what is traditionally considered good about this car. I admit, the make of a car is not the kind of subtext I like—I don’t know very much about cars and so I tend to feel excluded from whatever hints I’m supposed to pick up about the income or taste of the owner. (Subtext always takes this risk.) But other readers probably know (without googling) that Volvos are pretty nice. We also learn that it's so new it's the next year’s model. And silver, as a color, implies richness. Then we we learn the interior is leather, which also signals the car is high end and luxurious. This must be fancy!

And, yet, look again at the first sentence: “The new car was a 1991 silver Volvo station wagon, next year’s model.” The narrator (Charlotte) is not excited about these things. She seems bored with the situation, or perhaps disappointed. Consider how it might have otherwise been written: “We had a new car! It was a 1991 silver Volvo station wagon—next year’s model!” The exclamation points might be overkill, but I’m trying to prove a point. “The new car was” instead of “it was a new car” displays a lack of excitement. 

There are other indications that the car is not hitting right with Charlotte and her family. It is described as having a smug, upturned nose and is out of place. When I try to picture this, the car sort of squishes in my mind. It contorts to something not quite a car, perhaps smooshed into a parking space that is too small or maybe smashed so the bumper sticks up unnaturally. To a different sensibility, the car’s nose might seem sharp and stylish instead of smug. If the family liked the car, it might seem impressive next to the other cars rather than out of place. 

Note also that it’s the new car that is out of place, not the other ones. It’s an intruder. And that leather—it’s mentioned twice and neither time is good. The first time it humbles the family, and the second it brings physical pain as it sticks to Charlotte’s legs and smacks at her. 

There is also intense awkwardness inside the car—the family members can’t speak or look at each other. The father’s nerves are evident in the cracking knuckles, as are Callie’s in the fidgeting. I say this even though it’s quite common for kids Callie’s age to play with things like this—maybe it doesn’t always signal anxiety, but in this scene, when the writer choses one gesture per person, it can’t be an accident. We get the same sense from the mother’s adjustments and Charlotte’s inability to sit still. It’s noteworthy that the gestures are not only nervous but thwarted. Callie is told to stop playing with the windows. The father is trying to crack his knuckles but is unable to break the cartilage. And even Charlotte can’t quite move her legs because the leather is holding them in place. 

Only the mother has any control. When she adjusts the mirror, it sticks, and she has the power to make Callie stop her playing with the window. Charlotte’s mother is also the one driving—we’ll later learn that she is the driving force in their decision to live and work at the Toneybee.

So let’s look again at the Toneybee. It’s first introduced in what seems like a rather boring sentence: “The Toneybee Institute paid for it.” It’s no no-nonsense and to the point, saying exactly one thing and then ending. Many writers might object to such a sentence, thinking the detail of who paid for the car could be worked more efficiently into a clause of another sentence, or maybe as a parenthetical. But there it is on its own, and that gives it weight. We don’t learn outright what it means that the car was bought by the institute, but we learn that it’s undeniable. Giving the fact its own sentence makes me more likely to register it, to wonder about it, to consider that nothing is ever free. 

And it’s important that this is the book’s first mention of the institute. We don’t yet know about Charlie, the chimpanzee, or why they are going to this place. But to give it the power to bequeath cars in its very first mention? That lets us know where the power lies in the larger situation. The car makes these folks uncomfortable, and the car came from the Toneybee. That matters.

It’s also important that we get this reference to the Toneybee immediately before we see the family’s intense discomfort in their new car. “Being inside the Volvo felt like we were in public. None of us could bring ourselves to speak.” It gives a source to those nervous fidgets of adjusting a mirror, cracking knuckles, playing with the windows, shifting legs. We attach the discomfort to both the car and to the Toneybee and to the uneven power dynamic between family and institute. We understand that at least some of the family’s discomfort must be because of that. 

The family is contained inside the car, made into a unit and hurtling toward an unknown future. They are driven by the mother but in a car that has been purchased by the Toneybee Instutute. They’re leaving their homes, friends, and society, and the vehicle is this uncomfortable thing, imposed upon them by the institute. 

I don’t like to talk about foreshadowing in the old sense I learned in high school. I don’t like to the think the author is smugly hinting about upcoming events that the characters can’t foresee. These moves can seem contrived. But when the characters, and even the reader, start to sense what is not yet fully apparent but still contained and present in the circumstance—that feels real to me, and powerful. 

It’s not a false warning to the reader, but a careful observation of a situation and the truth it reveals: Don’t trust the Toneybee!