Remembered is a mother’s farewell to her son. It’s a sister’s regret. A woman’s remembering: her anger, and her heartbreak; her resignation and her resilience. And it’s a study on the importance of knowing where we’ve come from before we can go on. Especially when that going on means leaving for good.
The novel opens in Philadelphia during the 1910 riots. Edward is Spring’s son, at least he thinks he is. But now he’s on his death bed, accused of driving a tram into a whites only Department Store.
As Spring sits at Edward’s death bed and tells him his story, she tells us what it is like to be enslaved, and the legacy of it. This novel tells us how it was and how it is, without the whitewash.
The humanity of those who have endured abominable treatment, again and again through the generations, from those who wield power over them is realised on each page. But it’s not as simple good versus evil. The characters here are complex. The women are strong. Their relationships multi-layered. Some of them will do anything to make sure their children avoid slavery. Including kill them. Difficult though these scenes are to read, Yvonne Battle-Felton makes it believable and understandable. The people in this book are desperate for freedom. Any freedom, including for some the freedom that comes with death, is better than slavery.
Near the beginning of the book Agnes, who will eventually become Edward’s grandmother, tells Ella, a girl kidnapped by slave catchers only a few days previously, her secret:
“This is where I go to be free, Agnes says. She can’t stop the words from coming out. She’s just not selfish like some folk, stingy with words. She sits down on the edge of the riverbank and lets her feet dangle in the water.
Ella slumps down beside her,
“This river comes from up North,” she continues. “If I sit right here when the moon is bright and the river is high, the water from the north mix with the water from the south and in that very spot, I’m free.” (p63)
Agnes treasures these few moments. Ella, who was truly free, or as free as any black person in America can be, until a few days previously, laughs.
This is a book that shines a light into darkness by telling the story of how it was. Some would say, how it is. That’s the power of fiction. Through stories we experience the lives of others, go to places we might otherwise not see and, ultimately, we discover what it takes to be human. Here, on these pages, you will find humanity in all its richness and without the gloss.
Spring must give up her son. But first, rather than allow herself to be overhwelmed by the enormity of the loss, she must complete this one last thing for him. She must make sure he knows where he’s come from and who he is, so that he can make that final journey, so that she can let him go.
Spring doesn’t shy away form the horror of it. But neither is she enured in it, not in the end. What she has to tell is harrowing. But there’s pride in the telling of it. A pride in making sure Edward knows who he is.
At Edward’s death bed, Spring tells him:
Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper articles, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories that don’t ever get told. What I know comes straight from my sister’s lips to my heart and to this book. Some of it I seen with my own two eyes. Some with hers. (P36)
And that’s exactly the story of this book. It’s the story of living with an unrelenting hunger for freedom and justice, while your very survival depends upon the whim of the man who owns you. Stories like this aren’t recorded. They’re lived.
She’s sitting there on top of the chifforobe rocking back and forth to some music she heard ten, twenty years ago.
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton (2019) Dialogue Books
Longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019
Categories: On Books