Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

There is nothing new under the sun. While we may not have heard of separating children from their families at the border before, taking children from their families, housing them in orphanages, and then adopting them out to new families is not new in the history of this country. From 1924 through 1950, Georgia Tann ran the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an adoption agency that stole babies from single mothers or kidnapped older children from their poor parents and sold them to wealthy people looking to adopt. The law looked the other way for decades, and they and the adoptive parents colluded with Tann to keep the secret of the these illegal adoptions. In Lisa Wingate's novel, Before We Were Yours, she fictionalizes Georgia Tann's very real crimes to create a novel about the devastation and long term affects on the children and families illegally ripped apart.

In 1939, a young woman loses her baby and is advised not to have more. To mitigate this devastating heartbreak, her father is directed to a woman in Memphis. In present day Aiken, SC, high-powered federal prosecutor Avery Stafford has come home from Baltimore to help her father, a wealthy and well-respected Senator in the midst of a reelection campaign who is also facing a health crisis. Avery is both being groomed to take over for her father one day and also to provide an additional face for his campaign events right now. At one such event, an elderly woman named May Crandall mistakes Avery for someone else. This case of mistaken identity is somehow the thing that Avery latches onto during this stressful time, leading her first to her grandmother, suffering from dementia, with questions about the past and then to the family secret buried for so many years. May might have gotten Avery's identity wrong but she remembers quite a lot from her own tragic past.

Memphis, Tennessee, 1939. Rill Foss lives with her parents and four siblings on a riverboat shanty tucked away on the Mississippi River. When her mother's latest labor becomes dangerous, Rill's parents must go into town to the hospital, leaving the 12 year old in charge. While they are gone, the boat is raided and the children taken to an orphanage to await reunification with their parents. But Rill comes to understand that there will be no reunion, in fact her parents were tricked into signing their children away, even as she fights to keep her siblings together. The orphanage is an appalling and terrifying place. The children are abused and starved. They are molested. They are punished for outspokenness. And they disappear. Some children disappear into new adoptive families. Others just plain disappear.

Avery's and Rill's story lines alternate back and forth as the novel progresses taking the reader from the heart-breaking and horrific life in the orphanage in the 1940s to the closely guarded secrets of the present day. The description of what the Foss children endured daily after being ripped from their parents is so disgusting and their perseverance is so extraordinary that this historical story was far more compelling than the modern day revelations. Rill's determination to stay connected with her siblings and to find her way back to her family is incredible. Avery's story is more of a blossoming love story with a side of mystery and less engaging in general. The two plots come together in ways that reader will see coming long before the end but somehow that doesn't take much away from the power of the novel. Although based in large part on a terrible, true historic tragedy, this novel manages to be hopeful and positive in the end. Historical fiction fans will be completely engrossed in this one and all readers will sadly learn that we have not always been concerned with the welfare of children or of the sanctity of families.

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