Book Review: “Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis” by Alexis Coe

It’s unusual for a nonfiction book for teens to sound so riveting from the get-go: Alice and Freda were two nineteenth-century teenagers who happened to be in love. When the standards of the day kept them apart, perhaps not unexpectedly, Alice murdered Freda. I mean, come on. That’s a story that begs to be told, and I’m surprised that Alexis Coe’s account of their relationship, Freda’s demise, and the resulting trial is the first I’ve ever heard of it.

Coe does an excellent job of compiling a number of primary sources into this slim and very readable account, and the illustrations by Sally Klann really help bring to life the newspaper accounts and other hodge-podge sources that tell Alice and Freda’s tale. The short and tragic lives of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward not only make a compelling story unto itself but also a fascinating commentary on how late-nineteenth-century American society dealt with women and the idea of homosexuality. If you’re into true crime, I highly recommend giving this book a shot.

I will warn that, while Coe’s treatment of the topic is very well done, Alice + Freda Forever does not read at all like fiction, and you may want to steer clear if the simple relation of facts isn’t your thing. Even after the entire store has been told, you’ll still have questions. The author has done her research quite thoroughly, but there’s a lot of this story that’s been lost to time. We have letters that Alice wrote and transcripts of her testimony in court but no way of knowing her mental state during the trial or after. Of Freda we have even less – only a few love letters she wrote to Alice, none of which give too much insight into her mind. Some readers won’t be satisfied by the unanswered questions, but I think it speaks to the talent of the author that I was left wanting to know more.

Coe’s work reads almost like a thesis or academic project, but a riveting one. My only complaint is that she somehow, mysteriously, twice referred to Memphis as being in eastern Tennessee, when in fact it is far west (pgs. 25 & 68, if you’d like to check – or show me how I’m misreading it!). I’m sure this will escape the notice of most readers, but since I’m actually from eastern Tennessee, it was a bit of a sticking point for me.

If the topic grabs you, pick this one up. It’s a fascinating story. After reading Alice + Freda Forever, I’m kind of hoping for some kind of film or television adaptation soon!