Official 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.
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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.