Title: John Riley’s Daughter
Author: Kezi Matthews
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Number of Pages: 144
I started reading the beginning of John Riley’s Daughter years ago when I was a young teen, and I started getting curious about reading it all the way through. I’m pretty sure it’s out of print and the copy I had gotten from the library years back was no longer in circulation, so I bought a used copy online. This isn’t a book most people have heard of, but it’s still well-written and I think it’s worth checking out.
It’s set in South Carolina in the seventies during a defining incident in teenage Memphis’ life. Memphis is a strong-willed girl who lives with her grandmother and her developmentally disabled Aunt Clover. She was abandoned by her dad when she was little and she still hopes he will come back, trapped in a home with a grandmother who openly dislikes her and an aunt who knows exactly how to push her buttons. After Aunt Clover breaks Memphis’ precious guitar and they get into a huge fight, she storms out and disappears.
Her grandma blames Memphis for Clover’s disappearance and the only people who seem to care about her at all are her friend Samson and her grandma’s best friend Birdie. This book is a lot more literary than most young adult fiction. The writing is vivid and wonderfully visual, bringing the sweltering heat and inertia of summer in the deep South to life. Memphis isn’t a very likable character, even though I felt really bad for how her grandma treated her.
I understood why she didn’t have kind feelings for Clover, but her concern for her aunt’s safety is minimal. There’s a scene near the beginning where Memphis is talking about Clover being sexually exploited by local men and her attitude is… disturbing. Memphis’ subtle transition from a girl to a young woman is interesting to read about and there are an assortment of interesting and believable characters, giving the story a strong sense of reality. I didn’t see the ending coming and despite the lack of perfect solutions for the protagonist, it concludes on a satisfying note.