In her historical fiction novel “Memphis,” Tara M. Stringfellow introduces us to three generations of women. We meet Hazel, who was born in 1921; Miriam, born in 1957; her sister August, born in 1963; and Miriam’s two daughters, Joan and Mya, born in the mid 1980s. It’s through the eyes and words of four of these women that we learn the story of one Memphis family, and this family—these strong women who suffer through so much adversity yet remain pillars of strength—is based on Stringfellow’s family and her ancestors.
The story will affect readers differently depending on each reader’s own history and ethnicity. Most Black readers will (I assume) feel kinship with these women and will understand the many references to Black hair styling, Black music, and the strong connection from mother to daughter. Readers like me, who are not Black, will read with the backgrounds of our own histories and cultural biases. The Jewish owner of the deli in the neighborhood who supported his Black customers, and perhaps identified with the indignities of daily life that they endured because of the Jewish history of mistreatment and prejudice, made me proud. But as a non-Black reader, I felt as if I were given an opportunity to peek through a window into the lives of these women. It felt almost voyeuristic to read their innermost thoughts, to watch them flee domestic abuse, to see the aftermath of rape, and to witness the suffering from the many premature deaths and losses that permeate their lives. In one expressive paragraph, Joan comments that she finally feels free, and her aunt responds, “‘Free?’ Her laugh was steeped in the same bitterness when I had asked her about God. “A Black woman hasn’t even known the meaning of that word, my love.'”
The story is told in alternating time periods, and the chapter titles make clear the year and whose point of view we are reading. The only first person narrative is that of Joan, the eldest daughter in the last generation of women. She is Hazel’s granddaughter and Miriam’s daughter. She was raped when she was still a toddler, and while the white doctor arrogantly assured Miriam that she would not remember that event, she does, indeed. Joan is brilliant and an exceptionally talented artist. In fact, every woman in this family is gifted in one manner or another. August has the voice of an angel although she uses her creativity to style hair when circumstances don’t allow her to attend college.
The alternating time periods are often confusing. I found myself going back to the family tree at the beginning of the novel that shows the dates of births and deaths to center me in the chapter I was currently reading. At one point, it occurred to me that perhaps the reason Stringfellow chose to narrate the story in this manner is because the events in the lives of these women, which result in them raising their children as single mothers, repeat from generation to generation. So Hazel, whose husband was lynched by his fellow police officers in Memphis, while she was eight months pregnant with Miriam, ended up raising Miriam and her younger sister, August, alone. Miriam, who flees an abusive marriage with her handsome, successful husband, who is in the Marines, raises her two daughters in the Memphis family home, alone. And August, whose boyfriend disappeared when her son was still a child, continues to raise him as best as she can, also alone. Derek, her son, is the only male progeny in the family, and his story is both heartbreaking and chilling.
So while we read each woman’s unique story, we also see the repeated theme of independence and strength over the struggle, financial and emotional, that being the sole support of a family entails. In “Memphis,” we see that just as metal is forged through heating and hammering to make it stronger, so can repeated struggles forge women until their inner strength becomes as strong as any metal. Women whose determination to exist, to triumph, to survive, is forged through their trials and their tribulations.
This story is at times magical and mystical, at times as adorable as the stray cats and the loving Husky named Wolf, and as heartbreaking as the after-affects of rape and lynching suggest. Be prepared to spend time in Memphis, smelling the food and feeling the heat. Be prepared to feel empathy for these women who are not perfect, but who don’t let any imperfections stop them from achieving their goals. “Memphis” is a place you’ll want to visit.
Please note: This review was posted in an edited format on Bookreporter.com.