My Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
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 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 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.
Both the story and the truth behind Before We Were Yours is astonishing in the worst possible way. The more you read and discover what really happened, the more shocked you are that such a large scale operation existed for so long and did so much damage. I’m grateful to Lisa Wingate for exposing the truth and sharing this story.
I also really enjoyed how Wingate used two time periods to tell the story. By having Avery investigate, it’s easy for the reader to identify with Avery in her search for the truth. Likewise, by alternating between past and present, it’s almost impossible to put this book down. Wingate does an excellent job of pacing Before We Were Yours and also makes great use of cliffhangers to propel the story forward.
The characters in Before We Were Yours are very well-written. Wingate does a great job of showcasing each character’s intent and motivations in order to understand where everyone is coming from, including the villains. What’s also interesting about this story is that sometimes there are clearly defined good and evil characters, but that sometimes the characters aren’t so clearly defined. And in this, Wingate reflects real life. Sometimes someone does the wrong thing for the right reasons, and vice versa.
Throughout Before We Were Yours, Wingate makes some questionable language choices. She repeatedly refers to Rill Foss and her family as “river gypsies,” which is not only a slur, but not really the correct word choice. Additionally, Rill and other characters in the 1939 timeline make crass and racist observations about anyone who isn’t white, including black workers and that someone’s closed eyes make them look like a “Chinaman.” I would presume that Wingate included these details to reinforce the time period and the lack of political correctness and awareness that is better these days. But instead these remarks felt jarring and pull the reader out of the story. There are other ways to establish that the Foss family is ‘free spirited’ or that nothing about the early 1940s was perfect.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Wingate does an incredible job of highlighting this horrific situation in our country’s past. Wingate’s former career as a journalist aided in the research and writing of Before We Were Yours and the story unfolds in all the right ways. I highly recommend this book, especially for fans of The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (read my review!) and Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton (read my review!).
This book is…
This book contains content warning for…
child abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual)
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: historical fiction
Page Count: 342
Available here from IndieBound.
Have you read Before We Were Yours? What historical fiction about a lesser known piece of history would you recommend?