The most useful interpretations of the past make history relevant and accessible to wide audiences. When authors use well-researched facts about Memphis’s complex history as the setting for their fiction, they provide interpretations that are as valuable in their own ways as museum exhibits, academic papers, and documentaries are in theirs.
These works of historical fiction set in Memphis and West Tennessee are written in different styles and based on distinct time periods. But they each give readers the opportunity to look at our landscape from a new angle.
If you are looking for your next read, I recommend:
The Pinch: A History, A Novel by Steve Stern
The title of Stern’s book foreshadows what to expect from this magical realist dive into the Pinch District. Sliding between 1873, the early 1900s, and 1968, the plot mainly centers on three characters: Lenny, a drug peddling squatter on 1968’s North Main; Muni, a Russian Jewish refugee who escapes to the early 1900’s North Main with the help of the Jewish community; and Pinchas, Muni’s uncle who arrived during the yellow fever epidemic. Along the way, Stern introduces impoverished Irish residents of Catfish Bayou, a thriving residential community in the area where the Pyramid now stands, a circus traveling by barge, and Invaders at the sanitation workers’ marches.
Fantastical and strange, the mythologized events on North Main do not obscure the extensive research that went into this novel. Stein’s imaginative forays into what this neighborhood sounded, smelled, and looked like makes a contemporary area of commercial developments and parking lots come back to life.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Windgate
When it comes to Memphis villains, Georgia Tann ranks high on the list. Tann made her fortune tricking and stealing babies and children away from their poor birth parents in the Mid-South and selling them to wealthy adoptive families around the country. It sounds like fiction, but that is the historically factual part of this story.
Windgate’s novel starts in 1939, onboard a Mississippi River shanty boat anchored at Memphis where Rill Foss and her siblings are abducted and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage on Poplar Avenue. The book spans time and geography and explores what happened to these children in the decades after they were torn away from the homes they knew. Windgate’s descriptions of Memphis at the end of the Great Depression reveals severe economic extremes and exposes a societal landscape that supported Tann’s work without examining how it occurred.
Memphis by Tara Stringfellow
Memphis is more than the setting for Stringfellow’s debut novel; it’s a character in its own right. Set alternately in the 1940s-50s, 1970s-80s, and 1990s-early 2000s, the novel follows three generations of women in the North family. As the plot unfolds, Stringfellow describes how the North Memphis neighborhood of Douglass changed over the decades, focusing on overt racism, the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities, residents’ changing economic status, and gang violence. Perhaps the most vivid change is between Hazel’s experience of explicit racial violence in the 1940s in an otherwise tightknit community marked by Friday fish fries and her granddaughters’ school years. In those chapters, kids had to be home an hour before dark, and an armed gang member escorted the girls to school.
Stringfellow describes this Black community with empathy and understanding without shying away from contemporary violence.
Watershed by Mark Barr
In the 1930s, electricity was common in Memphis, but that was not the case in all of the region’s rural counties. The New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act of 1936, passed in the midst of the Great Depression, put the funding in place to provide electricity to isolated rural communities. Barr’s novel is mostly set in Hardin County in southeastern West Tennessee, which he juxtaposes with scenes in Memphis, the closest large city. Barr’s characters are multidimensional, dealing with complex problems – including power wielding bosses, infidelity, and the internal gnaw of secrets – that are not dependent on their urban or rural settings. These dynamics play out in a moment when people are waiting to turn on the lights, buy an electric stove, and install powered fans for the first time. From imagining a small town’s reaction to their first movie to describing a humid Mid-South summer and the promise of air conditioning, Barr gives his characters reasons to hope.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and the Manager of Programs and Associate Editor at StoryBoard Memphis. A historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.