We know from the first page of this riveting memoir that poet Natasha Trethewey’s mother is dead. “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” is a tribute to a life snuffed out by a brutal man, a fractured judicial system and a patriarchy as old as Methuselah. It is also an examination of the Old South colliding with the new, a chronicle of one artist’s beginnings, and of a changing America.

Cover courtesy of Ecco/HarperCollins

“Memorial Drive” is metaphorical – memory takes us for a ride – but it is also a road in Atlanta, a major east-west artery that “winds east from downtown ending at Stone Mountain, the nation’s largest monument to the Confederacy.” Massive statues of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are displayed here. Near its base, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough was shot to death in the parking lot of her apartment complex, “the faded chalk outline of her body on the pavement, the yellow police tape still stuck to the door” when her daughter saw it the next morning. She was 40 years old.

Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being. She is a living, breathing dynamo, coming of age in the Jim Crow South, breaking out of the restrictions imposed on her. Born in 1944, she meets her first husband, Canadian Eric Trethewey, in college. They live with her extended family in North Gulfport, Mississippi. Trethewey describes her “high yellow” relatives in “elegant lace-up shoes … and creased trousers,” living on the same patch of land for generations. Her great-aunt Sugar teaches her how to fish. Her grandmother sleeps with a pistol under her pillow. The Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in the yard when Trethewey is a toddler because her grandmother gives shelter to white Mennonite missionaries who had come to “repair the dilapidated housing of the very poor.”

Her parents’ interracial marriage is also an issue.

“My parents and I met with a great deal of hostility most places we went,” Trethewey recalls. “If I was with my father, I measured the polite responses from white people, the way they addressed him as ‘Sir’ or ‘Mister.’ Whereas my mother would be called ‘Gal,’ never ‘Miss’ or ‘Ma’am,’ as I had been taught was proper.” Her biracial identity becomes disorienting.

Things change when the family moves to Atlanta, the city that “epitomized the emergence of the New South” with its embrace of the civil rights movement. But Trethewey’s parents divorce and her mother begins her new single life, waitressing in Atlanta’s Underground. She meets the brutal Joel Grimmette, or “Big Joe.” Their union is a surprise to Trethewey, who, after a summer with her grandmother in Mississippi, returns to find her mother, married, with a new baby in tow.

“You are in the fifth grade the first time you hear your mother being beaten. … And then your mother’s voice, almost a whimper but calm, rational: Please Joel. Please don’t hit me again … The need in the voice of your powerful, lovely mother is teaching you something about the world of men and women, of dominance and submission.”

Trethewey is also psychologically abused by Grimmette. Through her childhood diary, a gift from her mother, she finds agency through language, and the will to resist. “I had begun to compose myself,” she recalls.

The quagmire of male entitlement and mental illness make up the second half of the book. There are black eyes, bruised kidneys, a sprained arm, a fractured jaw. Divorce follows, along with restraining orders and some relief. For a brief period, her mother has hope for her own future.

“My mother is flying. She is smiling, her slender arms undulating as if they are wings, as if she is a bird. It is high summer, 1984. Morris Day and the Time play on the radio. The song – her new favorite – is “The Bird.” She dances as if she is free to soar like one. And finally (Squawk, Hallelujah!) she is. She does not say it, but we are celebrating. Joel is in prison, nearly a year-long sentence ahead of him, and she is, for the first time in ten years, free.”

But her freedom is short-lived. Grimmette is released. A police detail lets down its guard. More than once, Trethewey wonders if her own voice could have saved her mother; if her silence contributed to her death. She understands the power of words, but also the power of silence. Trethewey points out that her own name, Natasha, is the Greek word for “resurrection,” which feels especially poignant, given her mother’s fate.

This is a political book. It is the story of a woman cut down in her prime, about a sick man who imposed his control and had his way, about the larger story of power in America. The awful postscript to this story is that Grimmette was released from prison in March of last year, and is now a free man.

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