Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A few months back, my mom loaned me a copy of Lisa Wingate's Before We Were Yours . I took one look at the cover, read the synopsis, and promptly shoved it onto a bookshelf - forgetting about it entirely. Alas, there are just too many books and too little time to read them all. Shortly thereafter, however, my book club decided to tackle Before We Were Yours as our December/January selection; after begrudgingly reading the first few chapters, I have to admit that the novel defied my prejudiced expectations. Wingate's book is a heart-wrenching work of historical fiction that sheds light on a tragic piece of American history, and her writing will undoubtedly thaw even the iciest of hearts.
Bouncing back and forth between 1930s-era Memphis and modern-day South Carolina, the novel unfolds with two intertwined narratives: the story of Rill Foss, a child who (along with her siblings) is abducted from her home, and the life of Avery Stafford, a young woman who is the heir-apparent to her family's political dynasty. As any casual reader will guess, these two stories are inextricably bound together by secrets that will ultimately come to light over the course of the novel. Both parallel plots work well in isolation, but Wingate creates a sleuth-worthy mystery that the characters (and readers) will have to untangle and decipher.
It's not much of a spoiler, because the book's blurb reveals as much, but Before We Were Yours centers on the crimes of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in the mid-1900s. Over the course of several decades, stretching from the 1930s to the 1950s, a woman named Georgia Tann organized the illegal trade of children through the auspices of adoption. As the novel details through its fictionalized reenactment of history, children in Memphis were regularly abducted from their homes, taken hostage by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and abused by their captors before being sold to families under the era's legal channels of adoption. These innocent victims were often subjected to neglect, starvation, physical abuse, psychological torment, and molestation. As Wingate asserts in the novel's afterward, the traumatic experiences of Rill and her siblings were taken directly from the real-life experiences of children who were victims of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. It's almost like the American version of a Charles Dickens novel, with Georgia Tann serving as a stand-in for Miss Havisham or Fagin. Unlike the protagonists of a Dickens novel, however, the Foss siblings don't have a tidy happily-ever-after resolution to their travails. In that regard, Wingate is much more in line with Mark Twain, whose novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Wingate repeatedly references over the course of her book.
While Wingate's writing is unquestionably eloquent and carefully crafted, the novel does suffer from a few authorial missteps. A romantic subplot in Avery's portion of the story falls flat and undermines the haunting qualities of Rill's experiences. Likewise, the "shocking secret" at the heart of the book relies upon several characters refusing to divulge their personal histories to their own family members; rather than create an honest portrayal of psychological repression, it comes across as forced - as if it's done more to mechanically further the plot than to authentically examine the aftermath of trauma.
Despite these flaws, Before We Were Yours is a fascinating read, complete with complex characters and evocative writing. Although some of the plot twists are visible from miles (knots?) away, the winding river of the novel provides many insights into aging, trauma, and the power of family. Even naysayers (like yours truly) will most likely be won over by this poignant, moving novel and the themes that Wingate explores.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.