In Alice + Freda, Alexis Coe explores Memphis in 1892, a time of horse-drawn carriages, riverboats, and pseudo-psychiatry. She introduces the reader to Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward and tells us of their romantic relationship, the discovery of their forbidden love, and the ensuing forced separation. We watch Alice’s hope turn to disappointment, obsession, and murderous jealousy. This is all in the opening chapter; the rest of the story is equally dramatic and suspenseful.
The book is equal parts courtroom drama and a work of historical research. The characters illustrate the changes occurring in a 19th-century Southern city like Memphis. After Alice murders Freda and subsequently jailed, Memphis is invaded by newspapermen who report and, at times, misreport every detail of Alice’s trial. Confident yet clueless medical experts explain away romantic love between women as insanity, couching their ignorance with terms such as “vicarious menstruation.” The judge presiding over the trial also most likely presides over lynch mobs. At every turn, white men control these women’s lives, publishing the news, dominating the discourse, defining the law, and fearing change.
This is also an innovative attempt at telling history. In particular, Sally Klann’s illustrations are beautiful and often comical depictions of Alice, Freda, psychiatrists, lawyers, parents, and big-city reporters reporting from the growing city of Memphis. Coe also uses facsimiles of Alice and Freda’s letters. These along with the endnotes, an epilogue, an appendix, and an index make up nearly half of the page count. Ebook readers should note that the handwritten letters do not display well on small screens, so extra effort may be required.
The author is telling a story that she cares deeply about, both for the sake of the individuals and for what it reveals about the time and place. We hear the echoes of history, and are left free to ponder, how much has really changed?
Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis