January 13, 2019
Before We Were Yours
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
2017 Ballantine Books
Finished on November 14, 2018
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)
In this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice.
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.
As is my typical fashion, I did not read the publisher's blurb before starting Before We Were Yours. Even though it was my recommendation to my book club, I took a gamble, knowing nothing more than its popularity and high praise since it first hit the bookstores and that it's historical fiction, which is always fun to discuss. I had never heard of Georgia Tann or the Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal, so I really went in cold on this read. I normally don't care for dual timelines (an overused literary device with historical fiction these days), but in this case, I thought both narratives were equally compelling, with neither point-of-view outshining the other. Some of my book club members felt the contemporary storyline was too romance-y and predictable, but I never felt that way and enjoyed the suspense of the mystery, keeping track of all the names, searching for clues, trying to figure out which child became which adult (as the names were changed after adoption).
After I finished Before We Were Yours, I began my research for book club and came upon several articles and YouTube videos about Georgia Tann and her accomplice, Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelley. The information I learned about these two greedy and cruel women made me angrier than I was after reading the book. If you wish, you can read about them here, but I would recommend waiting until after you've finished the book.
In spite of the sad and depressing nature of the book, especially knowing that it's based on a true story, I loved it and couldn't wait to talk about it with my book club. I thought the writing was very good and the characters were fully fleshed-out and believable. I felt their fear and sadness. Other than those few who had quibbles about the predictability and romantic aspects of the modern storyline, everyone else in my group thought it was very good, as well.