Book Review: Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe & Sally Klann (2014)

February 16th, 2015 12:38 pm by Kelly Garbato

 

In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation—it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancée Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again.

Freda adjusted to this fate with an ease that stunned a heartbroken Alice. Her desperation grew with each unanswered letter—and her father’s razor soon went missing. On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Her same-sex love was deemed insane by her father that very night, and medical experts agreed: This was a dangerous and incurable perversion. As the courtroom was expanded to accommodate national interest, Alice spent months in jail—including the night that three of her fellow prisoners were lynched (an event which captured the attention of journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells). After a jury of “the finest men in Memphis” declared Alice insane, she was remanded to an asylum, where she died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later.

Alice + Freda Forever recounts this tragic, real-life love story with over 100 illustrated love letters, maps, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper articles, courtroom proceedings, and intimate, domestic scenes—painting a vivid picture of a sadly familiar world.

2.5 stars. DNF at 25%.

As a fan of both true crime novels and cultural criticism, I fully expected to fall in love with Alice + Freda Forever. Unfortunately, I seem to be among the minority of readers who came away disappointed. I found myself skimming at 10%, and finally threw in the towel at 25%. (To be fair, this is nearly halfway through the main portion of the text; the appendix, footnotes, and assorted front and back matter comprise roughly 40% of the book.)

While the story is indeed an interesting one, the writing just didn’t capture my attention. Perhaps it’s because the tale is better suited to a long-form article as opposed to a full-length book; or maybe it’s because the author steered clear of dramatizing the story. Whatever the case, I found the writing rather dull and uninspired, especially given the subject matter (an illicit, violent, and ultimately doomed relationship characterized by stalking and threats and culminating in murder; sexism, racism, and homophobia; a justice system that is anything but; the institutionalization of women for failing to properly perform their gender; etc.). It had the feel of a college paper – more potential than polish.

To make matters worse, the illustrations are impossible to read on a Kindle. And by “illustrations” I don’t just mean maps and sketches, but the artist’s rendering of letters and court documents – items one must read as part of the story. Clearly this isn’t the fault of the author, but it would have been handy to have a text version for easy readability, perhaps cross-referenced with the illustrations for quick navigation (in a manner similar to that of footnotes). The appendix includes a few letters, but a quick search for certain phrases found in the illustrated letters turned up zero results. Meh.

I feel kind of bad giving Alice + Freda Forever such a low rating, especially since a) I think the idea of a “curated book” is hella cool and b) I quite appreciate the social justice elements embedded within the story. I’ll just chalk it up to a case of “good idea, poor execution.” Bummer.

(This review is also available on Library Thing and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: From the description: “In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation—it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancée Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again.

“Freda adjusted to this fate with an ease that stunned a heartbroken Alice. Her desperation grew with each unanswered letter—and her father’s razor soon went missing. On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Her same-sex love was deemed insane by her father that very night, and medical experts agreed: This was a dangerous and incurable perversion.”

The story focuses on how race, class, and gender influenced the case, as well public perception and its coverage in the media.

 

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