I saw Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate on NPR’s Best Books of 2017. I’d never read anything by Wingate before and wasn’t sure what to expect. On the whole, it was an interesting page turner.
Loosely based on real events, Before We Were Yours, alternates between two story lines. Avery Stafford is a present-day federal prosecutor who has recently moved back to Aiken, South Carolina. She is there to help her father, a famous Senator from a long line of prestigious politicians, who is suffering from cancer. She’s left her fiance temporarily behind on the East Coast, and she is dealing with the expectation that she may have to take her father’s spot. She is under a lot of pressure to perform as a potential candidate for public office as well as to let her mother and mother-in-law organize a beautiful wedding.
The other story line occurs in 1939 with 12-year-old Rill Foss. Rill and her three younger sisters and younger brother are taken by police from the shanty boat where she lives with her parents. Her parents were at the hospital because her mother almost died giving birth to twins. Rill and her siblings are taken to Georgia Tann, who runs the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Georgia Tann is a real, historical figure who stole thousands of children, mistreated them horribly, and then “sold” them in adoptions–some to very famous and influential families who could not have children on their own.
It’s not too hard to figure out how these two stories intertwine. Avery meets an old woman, May Crandall, in a nursing home at a political event. The woman recognizes Avery’s bracelet, and Avery is almost immediately enthralled by her, coming back by her room to learn more. When she sees that May has a picture of a woman that looks very similar to her grandmother, she starts looking for answers.
Rill Foss, only twelve years old, is desperately trying to keep her younger siblings safe when they end up at the children’s home run by a horrible, mean woman and her child abusing cousin. All Rill wants is to be back on the shanty boat with her mother and family. She only slowly comes to understand that her parents are not coming for them, but there’s nothing she can do. Rill’s story is especially heartbreaking. Children torn from their parents, being mistreated and taken from each other is a harrowing story, and Wingate told it well.
On the whole, this was a good book and definitely worth reading. However, there were parts that sometimes bothered me or took me out of the story. ***SPOILERS*** First, I felt that Wingate was weakest when writing love stories. She had Rill fall in love with Silas after one hour spent in his company. It was too fast and felt unnecessary. Although I liked Silas’s character, I didn’t buy the love story. Also, Avery fell pretty quickly for Trent Turner, a local real estate agent, who was helping her with her search. I liked Trent’s character and could see them together, but I felt like the love triangle with Avery’s fiance and Trent was unnecessary. It reminded me of The Notebook.
Second, I also didn’t quite buy Avery’s development as a character. Apparently, it was when Avery learned about her past, she realized that she needed to live for herself. She didn’t have to become a Senator when she wasn’t ready, or marry someone she wasn’t in love with, just because it was expected of her. But the problem with this “development” was that Avery had these feelings at the beginning of the book, before she discovered anything about her family. Avery’s epiphany at the end of the novel felt manufactured in order to lend more weight to the story. If Avery had been a debutante snob who was really invested in her family name and marrying the right man, her change at the end really would have meant something.
Finally, I felt bad for Camellia. Sure, pick the “ugly, difficult” dark-haired child to rape and kill, leaving the blond cherubs for adoption and a less difficult end. Something about this rubbed me the wrong way. I’m assuming this was not Wingate’s intent, but there is the undercurrent that if Camellia had been prettier or better behaved, her fate would not have been as terrible. ***END SPOILERS***
It’s horrifying that Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society were able to cause so much pain and suffering for so many years. In the middle of reading this book, I did some quick internet research and discovered that, yes, the circumstances were at least as bad as detailed in Wingate’s novel. Before We Were Yours is worth reading because of its sympathetic and compelling description of one dark corner of our history.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.