Sara reviews MEMPHIS by Tara Stringfellow, The Dial Press, 2022, 245 pages.
It took me a minute to get the sense of where this story was going; generational sagas aren’t usually my thing. But once Auntie August came into the picture—I was sold. This is a powerful shout-out to the black women of Memphis, to those who have overcome unspeakable trauma, to those who persisted when people told them “no” or called them “girl.” Every woman in the North family has a gift, and they refuse to sit back in the face of injustice.
The story follows the matriarch, Hazel, her two daughters, Miriam and August, and Miriam’s two daughters, Joan and Mya. Each chapter is a few pages long, rotating back and forth between points of view and time. While the chapters are short, and the book itself isn’t long, you will need to focus, especially on the chapter headings. Pay attention to who’s speaking, and pay attention to the year. The story spans from the 1930s, when Hazel was a little girl, to 2003, when Joan is eighteen.
The setting is the neighborhood of Douglass, in North Memphis. The girls attend Douglass Middle and High School. Memphis readers will recognize several street names: Poplar and Mclean, North Parkway, and Beale, of course. You may have grown up near Douglass, or known someone who did. The neighborhood changes, over the decades, to the point where an armed escort is necessary to walk the girls down the block to school.
Despite this, violence isn’t the focus of this story. It permeates in the background, but front and center are the women: strong-willed and joyful and smart and talented. Hazel, bristling when someone dares to call her “girl.” August, running her mouth when her sister gets engaged. Miriam, fixing the A/C in her car as she drives her girls and all their belongings across the country. Joan, sketching Miss Dawn’s beautiful hands. Mya, straddling the jukebox in her auntie’s hair salon and belting out Aretha Franklin.
Persistence. That’s what this story is about. And you can feel it, between the lines, how Tara has done the same. Getting into the prestigious Northwestern University, graduating law school, traveling the world, and writing this book. Because she had to. Because it needed to be said.
Every Memphian—no, every woman, needs to read this book. And feel inspired.
Tara Stringfellow, who has now moved back to Memphis, will be one of our keynote speakers at Bookstock on April 29th, for anyone who would like to meet her in person. After reading this book, I can guarantee you will.