Alice & Freda ForeverAlice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis” by Alexis Coe, illustrations by Sally Klann (Zest Books 2014) $16.99; 223 pp.

When teenager Alice Mitchell met slightly younger Freda Ward at the Higbee School for Young Ladies in Memphis, nobody was surprised that they became close. In the 1890s, it was common for “proper American women” to enjoy friendships with other women that included sleepovers and deeply affectionate gestures. In Memphis, they called it “chumming,” and it was perfectly normal.

But Alice and Freda took their friendship further. They fell in love.

Family and friends weren’t sure what to think: Alice’s mother suffered psychological problems, Alice’s father mostly ignored her and her best friend saw nothing amiss. Freda’s mother was dead and her father was grieving; her sister noticed, though, and figured the relationship was typical — until she intercepted love-letters from Alice to Freda, professing faithfulness and planning an elopement.

Alice had decided she could live as a man and support the couple, perhaps in St. Louis. Freda agreed — or did she? She loved to make Alice jealous by flirting and talking about boys, and when her family finally ended the relationship with Alice, she seemed to easily forget about their love and their plans.

But Alice didn’t forget. Enraged, she stalked Freda for weeks, trying to get her away from her family. She thought that if she could talk to Freda, everything would be all right, but when Freda ignored Alice just outside a downtown storefront, Alice suddenly understood that she’d never have Freda’s love again.

And if Alice couldn’t love Freda, then nobody would. …

Sounds like the basis for a great novel, doesn’t it? Girl meets girl, girl loses girl, tragedy ensues, the end?

Nope — because Alice + Freda Forever is all true.

In her introduction, Alexis Coe explains how she became nearly obsessed with the story of star-crossed lovers, cold-blooded murder and unrequited love, and why she knew this story needed telling. What’s nice is that, in setting the scene for this tabloid-like tale, Coe writes in a voice you’d want for this kind of book: one that evokes black-and-white movies and Sherlockian dramas. But since we know whodunit, the mystery is solved and there’s little left to do but follow, with modern eyes and jaws wide open, the aftermath, complete with scandalized city, sordid trial, and a difficult choice for the defendant’s life.

Meant for readers ages 16-and-up, I surely think an adult could enjoy this true crime story. With an old-timey atmosphere, murder reminiscent of a Victorian detective novel, chaste romance and mild edge-of-your-seat action, Alice + Freda Forever is a page-turner. 

Amazon TrailAn American Queer: The Amazon Trail by Lee Lynch (Bold Strokes Books 2014) $16.95; 258 pp.

In 1960, when then-teenage lesbian Lee Lynch was outed to her parents, few people “were even capable of believing… that a 15-year-old could be sexually active.” It was obviously a more innocent time but still, Lynch says, “Hypervigilance settled deeply into my very muscles.”

Dancing with someone of the same sex was illegal in some places then, and entering a lesbian bar was a nervous, gutsy move. At one point, Lynch and a girlfriend were denied a camping spot because they were lesbians. Even vacationing where she didn’t have to hide and was “surrounded for once by my own” was a gleeful, rare delight; Lynch knew other lesbians, but she knew that knowledge couldn’t be public.

But the times, they were a-changing.

As years went by, Lynch became an activist for gay rights and women’s issues. She noted how politics — especially those impacting the lives of certain sectors of society — became harshly divisive. She saw the beginning of the AIDS crisis, the bigotry that it brought, and the friends it killed. She later noticed with gratitude how, in preventing the loss of human rights, “People from all over are offering to help.” Lynch made friends with some straights, and marched in her first Gay Pride parade.

“Today,” she says, “because our history has become visible, it has also started to look more like our present.” And marriage?  “What a lovely question.”

I struggled for a while with An American Queer: The Amazon Trail — not for what’s said, but how it’s arranged. Lynch offers readers so much: written with a gentle, almost stream-of-consciousness voice, this book is partly memoir and partly LGBT history with a personal touch. Lynch’s essays are approachable, comfortable and enjoyable to read, and how she writes about the past is more relatable for casual readers, I think, than are similar books by academics. This is the kind of thing — the kind of writing — you want on an easy curl-up-and-read day.

I question, however, the inclusion of the books’ first few chapters. Those early essays from the beginning her writing career are terribly dated and, because of their conversational tone, they feel out-of-place — maybe a little too homey. I don’t think that’ll be an issue for older gay or lesbian readers, but it could be off-putting for younger ones … and they’re the readers who could most benefit from this book.

My advice is to give it a whirl, stick with it, and you won’t be sorry. Lynch’s experiences and her thoughts are LGBT history at street-level.

—     Terri Schlichenmeyer