August 13, 2018

Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours

by Lisa Wingate

Genres: Historical Fiction 
Publisher: Ballantine Books 
Length: 342 pages 
Published: June 6, 2017 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 or 4.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.

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 that the truth is much darker. 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 fiancĂ©, 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 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—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."

From the book's dedication


"People don't come into our lives by accident."


"August 3, 1939

My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon. The room takes life only in my imaginings. It is large most days when I conjure it. The walls are white and clean, the bed linens crisp as a fallen leaf. The private suite has the very finest of everything. Outside, the breeze is weary, and the cicadas throb in the tall trees, their verdant hiding places just below the window frames. The screens sway inward as the attic fan rattles overhead, pulling at wet air that has no desire to be moved.

The scent of pine wafts in, and the woman’s screams press out as the nurses hold her fast to the bed. Sweat pools on her skin and rushes down her face and arms and legs. She’d be horrified if she were aware of this.

She is pretty. A gentle, fragile soul. Not the sort who would intentionally bring about the catastrophic unraveling that is only, this moment, beginning. In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It is merely a terrible by-product of surviving.

It isn’t her fault, all that comes to pass after that one final, merciless push. She produces the very last thing she could possibly want. Silent flesh comes forth—a tiny, fair-haired girl as pretty as a doll, yet blue and still.

The woman has no way of knowing her child’s fate, or if she does know, the medications will cause the memory of it to be nothing but a blur by tomorrow. She ceases her thrashing and surrenders to the twilight sleep, lulled by the doses of morphine and scopolamine administered to help her defeat the pain.

To help her release everything, and she will."

From the book's dedication

My Book Review:

This historical fiction novel is based on the true story of a corrupt children's orphanage in Tennessee that secretly trafficked children. By kidnapping children from poor families or drugging new mothers after childhood, the so-called orphanage kept themselves in business. Its cruel leader, Georgia Tann, had corrupt police officers and mob-like connections who helped perpetuate her dealings. Knowing the story comes from truth really makes it a punch to the gut and even more relevant now as the horrors of human trafficking continue worldwide and must be stopped.

The novel has two alternating narrators: twelve-year-old Rill Foss narrates her life on the river with her four siblings and young parents during 1939, and Avery Stafford is a federal prosecutor who stumbles upon the secrets of the survivors of this orphanage when she meets an older woman in a nursing home.

I definitely liked the historical narrative much more than the present-day one. One of my friends called the modern-day storyline "Hallmark" and I would have to say she was pretty spot-on with that assessment. My aversion to Avery's narrative was the political backdrop which felt unneccessary and self-important. However, Rill's descriptions of her home on the Mississippi River and the abuse they undergo after they're kidnapped is powerful, well-written, and a compelling page-turner. I felt so immersed in the setting and wholly invested in seeing Rill reach some sort of safety, security, or justice. I really adore thoughtfully researched historical fiction and Lisa Wingate's novel was even better than I had hoped it would be. I definitely recommend it.

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