Title: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
First Publication: 2017
Major Characters: Avery Judith Stafford, Rill Foss/May Weathers Crandall, Trent Turner III, Judy Myers Stafford
Setting Place: Memphis, Tennessee and Aiken, South Carolina
Theme: Personal Identity, Family Secrets, Injustice and Class Divisions, Child Trafficking, Heritage, and Rewriting History
Narrator: First Person with multiple narrators
Book Summary: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.
Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.
Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.
Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is a gripping, sad and heartwrenching narrative that follows Rill and Avery. Alternating storylines between 1939 and present day, this work was also quite shocking.
Rill Foss is a twelve-year-old girl, that along with her parents (Briny and Queenie) and her four siblings, lives on a shantyboat dubbed the “Arcadia”. On a stormy night, as Queenie has complications with the birth of her twins, the parents take off to the hospital and leave Rill in charge. In the morning, its not Briny that comes back but a cop that takes all five Foss siblings into the custody of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
“I learned that you need not be born into a family to be loved by one.”
Life will not be the same. In present day Aiken, South Carolina Avery Stafford has everything she could want. A successful lawyer, she is engaged to be married and carry on the Stafford name in the political ring. That is until she discovers what could be a very damaging secret to an important family legacy.
Rill is unable to fight off the authorities and cannot prevent that her brother, sisters and herself are hauled off. Given a limp explanation that they are being taken to see their parents, all the children are confused but mostly, they are scared. Avery comes from a privileged background, has never want for anything and yet she is uncertain as to whether she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become senator. A random encounter turns her world upside down.
“A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.”
I just love the way in which Wingate brought the two storylines together as there appears to be no connection between them initially. The characters in Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate are fully fledged. There is no denying that this was an emotional read.
While the characters are fictional, the background of the story is very real. The Tenessee Children’s Home Society was run by a woman named Georgia Tann. While it appeared that she was acting out of goodwill, it was later discovered that this woman illegally (kidnapped, duped parents into signing over their children etc…) got 5,000 children and procured their adoptions to the highest bidder. Tann brokered adoptions like one does a property.
“I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone.”
There was no heart or sentiment involved, just money. She would visit hospitals and get mothers that had just given birth (and were still under sedation) to sign papers giving up their babies. She also had people snatch kids right off the streets and faced practically no problems because she had the police and courts in her pocket.
It’s hard to fathom that this woman was the reason that thousands of children faced absolutely horrifying situations. She targeted poor families and unwed mothers, people that could barely put up a fight against her organization. While Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate dealt with a tough subject matter, author handled with finesse.