Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.
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 that the truth is much darker. 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 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—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.
The story of Before We Were Yours is all the more shocking and heart-breaking when you realize that while the main characters are fictional, the tragedy depicted is all too real.
In this powerful work of historical fiction, we follow the story of 12-year-old Rill, a girl growing up poor but happy on a riverboat with her parents and four younger siblings. But when the children become separated from their parents due to complications of labor and an emergency trip to the hospital, their lives become dark and dangerous. Stolen away by the notorious Georgia Tann, the children are taken to a children’s home, where they’re starved, neglected, and abused before ultimately being adopted out, one by one, to wealthy families who are willing to pay.
In alternating chapters, we follow a modern-day story, as Avery Stafford comes home to South Carolina to support her ill father, a politician from a powerful family. Avery stumbles upon a woman in a nursing home, May Crandall, who seems to have some sort of connection to Avery’s family. What starts as a curiosity for Avery turns into a quest to unravel the mystery of May’s strange tie to Avery’s grandmother, now suffering early stages of dementia. As Avery digs deeper, she begins to see that her family’s hidden past may have intersected with the schemes of Georgia Tann, and Avery must decide if it’s wiser to uncover the truth or let the past stay in the past.
While Avery’s search for answers is interesting, it’s the story of Rill and her sisters and brother that’s truly stunning. The children grow up free and open to adventure, never minding that they’re looked down upon as “river rats”. On board their boat and with their parents, they live in a kingdom of their own. Reading about how this family is torn apart is shocking — it’s amazing how much cruelty was inflicted upon these young children, especially as the story drives home the fact that this happened to thousands of chlidren over a period of more than 20 years.
The mystery of how Avery’s grandmother is connect to May is not revealed until close to the end of the book, and while there are hints along the way, the answer isn’t entirely obvious. Meanwhile, while we see how Rill grew up and changed from the river girl to a woman with a family of her own and a new life, the journey she makes isn’t easy and is no fairy tale. Not all the loose ends are tied up, which is fitting, given that in the historical records of the Georgia Tann scandal, many families never did find their missing children, and many hundreds are believed to have died under the “care” of this awful, twisted adoption industry.
Before We Were Yours is a compelling read, although I was less engaged during the contemporary chapters, particularly when the focus shifted from Avery’s search into family history to dwell more upon Avery’s romantic life and her career choices. Other than that, I found it a quick, fascinating, and terribly sad read.
This was a book group pick, and I’m so glad it was! As with all of my book group’s books, I can’t wait to hear from my bookish friends and to exchange reactions, ideas, and questions.
If you’ve read Before We Were Yours, I’d love to hear your thoughts too!
Title: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publication date: June 6, 2017
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Historical fiction