Book Review: Clever and gripping way to fit 80 years of history into a book

Philadelphia in 1910 is a hotbed of tension, inequality and trade union battles. The emancipation act happened almost 50 years earlier in 1863 but injustice remains rife.

By Anna Caig
Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 8:41 am
Updated Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 12:32 pm
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton.
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton.

Against this backdrop, Remembered opens with our narrator Spring at home in her kitchen listening to the radio, making coffee and being visited by the ghost of her dead sister, Tempe.

Tempe visits when someone is dying and at first Spring assumes she’s come for her – and she’s so tired she doesn’t even mind.

But it’s her son Edward who’s lying unconscious in a hospital bed after the trolley he was driving crashed into a whites-only department store.

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Spring and the ghost of her dead sister manage to get into the ‘colored ward’ of the hospital to see him, led by a nurse through the back corridors and maintenance areas so as not to disturb any white people.

Spring decides to tell her boy their history; the story of how they made their way from enslavement on Walker’s farm to freedom in Philadelphia.

She’s never told Edward the full truth before and this is where Remembered gets both its structure and its power – we revisit the lives of Spring, Tempe and the generation that came before in the hope her remembering will ‘lead him home.’

Battle-Felton covers a huge amount in the narrative that follows – the conditions and treatment endured by enslaved people at Walker’s farm; the lengths to which people will go to protect their children; what makes a life so unbearable death is preferable, and who gets to make that choice; the mid-nineteenth century practice of kidnapping free black people into slavery, seemingly with impunity; the history of the emancipation act told from the perspective of enslaved people.

All this and more is explored over the course of Spring’s story. It’s a clever and gripping way to fit 80 years of history into a book that ostensibly takes place over 24 hours.

By the end, Spring is so real we feel her in the room with us. We never really know what difference her story has made to Edward but it’s certainly made a difference to us. We will remember her.