Before We Were Yours
by Lisa Wingate
It is 1939, and twelve-year-old Rill Foss lives with her four younger siblings on the Arcadia, her family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. For Rill, it is the perfect life – magical, free, and filled with adventures. Until one night, when her father must rush her mother to the hospital, leaving Rill in charge. With both parents gone, strange men arrive at the boat and drag them away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, where they are met by the cruel director who seems determined to tear them from each other at every opportunity.
It is the present day in Aiken, South Carolina. Born into a wealthy family, Avery Stafford is the daughter of a well-known senator, leads a successful life as a federal prosecutor, and is engaged to a dashing young man. When she returns home to help her father as he struggles with his health, an accidental meeting with a seemingly batty elderly lady sends Avery delving deep into her family’s buried history, threatening to unearth dangerous and potentially devastating secrets.
The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was a real orphanage – if it can be called that. The Memphis branch was run by Georgia Tann in the first half of the twentieth century. In “A Note from the Author” at the end of the book, Wingate observes that while many children were legitimately rescued or accepted by the orphanage, many were also taken fraudulently from their parents. To the public, Tann was a generous woman with a good heart who simply wanted what was best for the children. In reality, Tann profited enormously by engaging in out-of-state adoptions with wealthy families. In 1945, forty to fifty children in the orphanage died due to a dysentery outbreak and poor care, but Tann insisted that it had only been two children. Some estimates of the number of children that disappeared at the Memphis facility are as high as five hundred. Georgia Tann died of uterine cancer in 1950. For a more complete perspective of the Memphis orphanage, I suggest you read the author’s note at the end of the book.
When I read mystery books, the best part for me is the suspense. Before We Were Yours could be suspenseful at times, but overall I think it could have used a bit more of that element. Perhaps Wingate could have revealed the Stafford family’s history a little more slowly so that the reader did not already know in advance what Avery did not. The author did, however, keep me guessing as to the identity of Avery’s grandmother.
Wingate drops the occasional humorous tidbit, often a line from a dialogue perfectly worded to elicit a laugh from the reader. Most of this humor occurs in the storyline following Avery, but as a southerner, Rill does sometimes have a colorful way of putting things. Wingate draws a sharp contrast between Rill’s dark and frightening ordeal and Avery’s comparatively low-stress and luxurious life.
I would recommend this book for young adults and older readers. While the plot may require a more mature mind and there is a strongly implied rape, there is no strong language and only a bit of innocent romance. In addition, Before We Were Yours sports some unique similes and metaphors that can be filed away in your mental book of writing techniques. I am not sure how closely the Foss siblings’ experience resembles that of the real children, but reading this book will give you an idea of the cruelty and corruption of Georgia Tann and the amount of strength and courage the children needed to persevere.