Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

BeforeWeWereYoursCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Memphis 1939, and present day Aiken and Edisto Island, South Carolina
My Copy Came From: I borrowed the paperback from my mother-in-law.

*** this post contains affiliate links ***

Review: Absorbing and emotional historical fiction. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is historical fiction that focuses on the horrific story of Georgia Tann, a woman who abducted and sold children for years through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Told with dual point of view characters, and a back-and-forth in time narrative, Before We Were Yours had me hooked from the first page.

Our two point of view (POV) characters are Rill Foss aka May Crandall, who at age twelve is abducted along with her sisters and her brother. Rill’s story mostly stays in the past of 1939, with a few bits here and there from her POV in the modern section. The other POV character is set in present time and is named Avery Stafford. Avery’s father happens to be a senator and the Stafford family name is quite prominent and full of history. Avery meets Rill, and starts to learn Rill’s story, and learn about her own family’s history.

The two characters are both well done. I liked both characters; they each had their own personality and strength. Rill has to take command of her siblings, and tries to keep them all together and safe, while navigating the cruel world of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Avery’s story is more of the modern woman trying to discover family secrets.

I found the back-and-forth narratives to be easy to follow and both stories were compelling. Rill’s chapters were horrific and heartbreaking, and there is a definite content warning for this book. There were scenes of abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual) and neglect and just all around despicable behavior towards children that were intense to read. The scenes weren’t overly graphic, but they were appalling and cruel and very difficult to read. If these types of scenes bother you, you may want to steer clear of this read as at times the abuse and sadness felt unending.

Because of all of this sadness and mistreatment of children and the nature of the story, some of the plotlines are left unresolved. There are several characters that just disappear, and the reader never discovers their fate. I found this frustrating. I want to know what happened to certain characters! We find out what happens to some, but not all and this drove me crazy.

Ultimately Before We Were Yours was a compelling read that I couldn’t put down. It was a book club read for me, and we had a good discussion about the book and I’d recommend this as a book club selection to those book clubs that can handle the content. This is a book that you just know will be made into a movie, and as I was checking Lisa Wingate’s website for information about that (it’s been optioned by MGM), I noticed that there’s another book by Lisa Wingate and also Judy Christie being released in October called Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society (link goes to Amazon). This book sounds amazing and a must-read for those who enjoyed Before We Were Yours. I can’t wait!

Bottom Line: Absorbing and emotional historical fiction.

LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***

Author Website


Have you read Before We Were Yours? Would you like to live on a riverboat? Will you read Before and After?


15 thoughts on “Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

    1. The blurb on Amazon for the next book says that some people read Before We Were Yours and that led them to discover family members! It’s probably going to be a very emotional, powerful book. I’m intrigued by the real stories behind this fictional story.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Did your book club members have any memorable disagreements during the discussion? Your review made me think about how media, especially social media, sells us this idea that we can change the world if we work together or even make small changes. But for some, the darkness never ends because life isn’t a motivational poster for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Not really any disagreements, no. This isn’t quite the book for that. There’s not a whole lot of “oh this could be good” or “oh this could be bad”. It’s quite obvious good or bad here, and I think a lot of that had to do with the point of view characters. Perhaps if there had been point of view chapters from Georgia Tann herself or one of the women working in the orphanage that might’ve caused some debatable discussion. As it was, our two POV characters were both what we’d think of as “good” – I actually don’t recall any particularly shady actions by either of the two main characters. You could debate the issue of informing someone of their past &/or their families past into the picture, but we didn’t go there. Most of our “debates” (if you could even call it that) were about what happened to certain characters.


          1. Thank you! It is hard figuring out what makes a good book club book because you’re right – when everyone likes the book a lot of times it’s just “oh that was great, what’s next”! But controversial books can sometimes inspire too much debate and then everyone is angry and upset… it’s tough to know what will be a good fit!
            This was fascinating history because so many of us hadn’t heard about this before reading this book.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. Having discussion questions prepared helps with that issue. But right now my book club is going through a phase where we aren’t using questions and I’m finding it harder to get a good discussion out because of the lack of questions.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You tend to get the comments like “I liked it. I related to it.” and vice versa. The mostly contentious book club meeting I was ever at was over Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. One young woman, who was paranoid and squirrly about everything (she told us she wouldn’t come to any of our houses because she won’t sit in places she doesn’t know, including the use of toilets) was married to a brand-new doctor. She spent the entire meeting going on about how fat people are sick and dying — despite there being SEVERAL very fat people at book club. Not only could no one convince her that not all fat people are in poor health, but they couldn’t get her to comprehend why it’s mind-blowingly stupid that she thinks she’s responsible for policing other people’s behaviors. One thin woman said she didn’t like the book because she “couldn’t relate to it.” I found that more offensive, personally, because it shows a complete lack of empathy.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Oh wow, that’s really awful. People always have so many opinions about fat people and what they should be eating/doing… I always want to know why they feel they should have an opinion about it. After all, how does it affect their life? If I choose to eat something unhealthy or not exercise that moment, how does it affect them?
              That’s sad that she couldn’t like something because she didn’t relate to it. That’s not even trying to see things from someone else’s point of view. If I only read things I related to I’d have very little to read!
              I think the most debate my book club has had was about a book called The Two Family House. It brought up differences between extroverts & introverts, and the extroverts in our group could not understand the introvert way of thinking, and it was quite fascinating (and quite typical of the extrovert/introvert discussion with introverts having to defend being introverted). Add in some mental illness discussions, and it was quite the conversation!
              Another memorable book we discussed was for A Soft Place to Land. We all hated it and had a ton of fun absolutely blasting the book.
              I still need to read Dumplin’ and Puddin’.


              1. I definitely liked Dumplin’ better and felt it was more realistic. The characters in Puddin’ felt too much like a millennial woman writing teens. I mean, that’s what happened, but the different ages shouldn’t sound the same.

                Liked by 1 person

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