‘Alice + Freda Forever’ by Alexis Coe

November 4, 2014 at 6:16 am Leave a comment

alice-fredaThe book in front of me was slim and had a striking red cover with girlish and looping white handwriting taking up most of the space. The back featured the same white script and a little sketch of a man’s razor blade with black paragraphs of praise from various other authors below it. It looked dramatic, fun, and, above all, like something you’d want to pick up.

I describe the book to you physically because I have never been asked what I’m reading so often as I was when reading Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe. And I never received so many weird looks as when I answered the question. The looks plainly said: “Lesbians? In post-Civil War Memphis? Murder? Well, okay, Corey, you do you, I guess…”

Most people I talked to about the book thought it was fiction and found it plainly weird of me to read such a thing. Those who persevered in the conversation understood Alice + Freda Forever to be nonfiction, but still clearly didn’t see the appeal.

I found their reactions almost more interesting than my own in that they mirrored the reactions of Alice and Freda’s contemporaries almost too perfectly—no one could understand these young women’s “unnatural love” to the point of thinking them insane. Alice was condemned to a lunatic asylum, not because she had murdered someone and showed absolutely no remorse, but because she wanted to marry another woman. That, according to the judge and jury and the rest of America, was clearly crazy. And, more than 100 years later, apparently wanting to read about such a thing is also considered more than a little eccentric.

One wonders what my conversational companions would think of Alexis Coe, author of the book and self-professed obsessor about the case of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward!

After years spent devoting herself to the story and these women, Alexis Coe tells the story of Alice and Freda well. However, in writing such a short book, she is unable to tell it thoroughly. Indeed, one wonders why she chose to short-change herself in this way. Despite years of documented research and obsession, the book is strangely surface-oriented. The story is told, but that’s about all. Admittedly, telling the story is no small thing—this is a long-forgotten piece of late-Victorian American history that certainly deserves an airing—but while she was about it, I couldn’t help but wish Coe had delved a little more deeply.

More biographical information about Alice, Freda, and their families would have been helpful. More background details about Memphis, Tennessee at that particular historic moment would likewise have been a treat. And deeper discussion of the place of gender and sexual identity in the period would have been amazing.

Instead, Coe starts the book off with the bang and the murder itself, backtracks briefly to discuss the events leading to the murder, and then proceeds dutifully through the trial and to Alice’s eventual institutionalization and death. It’s all over pretty quickly, with only tantalizing hints of a broader story, as when Coe discusses a lynching that occurred while Alice was awaiting trial and when a sentence or two elude to society’s understanding of womanhood in the period.

All the same, despite these shortcomings, what is there is fascinating and beautiful. I really enjoyed hearing this unusual tale and left the book craving more. Additionally, the text is complimented by some delightfully whimsical art and prettily reproduced letters between Alice and Freda to give readers direct access to the primary source material—an unusual and terrific touch.

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Entry filed under: Non-fiction, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , .

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