Title: The Book of Lost Friends
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Print length: 388 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
A new novel inspired by historical events: a story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its connection to her own students’ lives.
Lisa Wingate brings to life stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.
Louisiana, 1875 In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: Could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.
Louisiana, 1987 For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.
After reading and enjoying this author’s previous novel (Before We Were Yours), I was excited to get an ARC of The Book of Lost Friends… and yet I left it unread until now, somehow never quite feeling in the mood to get started. So, I was glad when my book group chose The Book of Lost Friends as our July 2022 Book of the Month — finally, a commitment to get me motivated!
Unfortunately, while I finished the book, I can’t say that I loved it. In fact, I’ve been wavering between rating this one 2.5 or 3 stars.
The narrative alternates between a historical timeline set in 1875 and a more modern timeline set in 1987. Both stories are situated in Augustine, Louisiana, and in both timelines, the Gossett family is at the center of the community.
In 1875, the Gossett plantation has been transformed post-war into sharecropper properties, still dominated by the plantation’s former mistress, who seems determined to undermine and cheat the formerly enslaved people now working to secure their own land. Her husband has disappeared to Texas in search of his wayward son, and the future of the land and its people is very much up in the air. The main character, Hannie, ends up accompanying the former master’s two daughters (one white and legitimate, the other biracial and illegitimate) on a dangerous journey to find their father and find the missing documents needed to secure their inheritance. Hannie’s own goal is more personal: To find the missing members of her family, all of whom were sold off while enslaved and stolen by an unscrupulous relative of the plantation owners.
In 1987, the main character is Benny (Benedetta) Silva, a young teacher who accepts a rural posting in exchange for student loan forgiveness. Benny is ill-prepared to teach in a school where there are inadequate resources, apathetic staff, and students who lack the most rudimentary skills or interest needed to pursue an education. Benny is determined to find a way to connect with her students, and begins a research project that puts her at odds with powerful town leaders.
I don’t want to go too far down the road of discussing the dual plots, so I’ll stick to some key concerns and takeaways.
In both timelines, the plot is often confusing and muddled. We alternate chapters between the two timelines, and yet as we pick up a storyline after a chapter away from it, there’s often a gap in the action from where we left off. Intervening events do get explained, but the initial impression is always that something has been missed or that the pieces don’t quite connect.
The family chronologies and connections are not well explained, and neither is the make-up of the town itself or its history. There’s a lot of detail thrown around in the book, but often through exposition rather than incorporation into the plot. The details often felt muddy to me, leading to my feelings of disengagement.
Benny’s role, in my opinion, is problematic. Her character really smacks of white saviorism. She arrives in town as an outsider, and immediate becomes the catalyst for changing the lives of the poor children and disempowered community members of Augustine. Why did it take Benny’s arrival to make this happen? Why was it Benny and the (white) descendants of the Gossett slaveowners who enable the discovery of the town’s history and the revelations that ensue?
I did appreciate learning about the Lost Friends advertisements, which were a real historical phenomenon used by formerly enslaved people to try to track down and reunite with family members. The inclusion of real Lost Friends ads is touching and powerful.
However, overall, the plot didn’t build in a way that connected the dots, and the action sequences and outcomes felt disjointed. I did not feel emotionally involved with the characters, and while certain moments elicit sympathy or sorrow or horror, these responses related more to the general circumstances described rather than being connected to actual care or concern for the specific characters.
I was also turned off by a weirdness to the ending, in which a big revelation about a character’s backstory is shared literally on the last two pages of the book. Why?? It felt awkward and unnecessary — perhaps it was intended to provide an “aha!” moment about the character, but really, it just felt tacked-on and beside the point.
Overall, this was not a great reading experience, and if not for my book group commitment, I probably would not have finished. The “Lost Friends” element is interesting from a historical perspective, but the fictional storylines built up around this element just never made me feel connected or invested.
Final note: I will add that many of my book group friends enjoyed this book more than I did, and one person who is herself an educator commented that she found Benny’s work with the students and the challenges she faced very relatable and well done. In other words… while I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, your mileage may vary!