Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

My Rating: 5/5

The Blurb: Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life abourd 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 realise the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s real-life director, the cruel Georgia Tann, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together.  

Aiken, South Carolina, Present Day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career, a handsome fiance and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when she 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 to redemption.

My Review: Utterly absorbing; heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. And such an emotional experience for me with foster care/adoption and children’s wellbeing at the forefront of my heart as an educator and as a ‘foster carer in training’.

Before We Were Yours alternates between dual storylines – the present day of Avery Stafford; daughter of a prominant Senator, former US attorney and family torchbearer; and the past of Rill Foss, kidnapped from her family’s shantyboat and taken to live in a holding home, where she was abused and neglected before being sold to her new parents. The two storylines intersect when Avery meets May (aka Rill) and begins to unravel a secret well hidden by her grandmother.

Avery’s story is one of family ties that bind; of secrets kept and secrets shared and ultimately of self-discovery. It’s a story of finding out who you are and where you belong.

“A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We are always trying to persuade ourselves of things”

Rill’s (May’s) story is one of tragedy but also triumph. It’s a story of strength; of loss and the unbreakable bonds of sisters.

“…the love of sisters needs no words. It does not depend on memories, or momentos, or proof. It runs as deep as a heartbeat. It is ever present as a pulse.”

In Before We Were yours, author Lisa Wingate brings together an appalling truth with fictional characters that evoke real emotional responses. The story of Rill and her siblings, while fictional, is made all the more haunting as it’s inspired by the harsh reality of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and the atrocieties inflicted on the children and their families by its notorious director Georgia Tann. Kidnapping, molestation, abuse, neglect, murder and black market adoptions; Georgia Tann made her fortune buying and selling stolen children to the rich and the powerful.

The devastation caused by this woman and her employees is unthinkable and yet it happened. Parents were coaxed into signing away their rights, children were stolen by corrupt police officers, names changed and sold to the highest bidder. These poor children were separated from the people they loved most, beaten, starved and sometimes left to die. It is unbelievable that this went on for so many years and that so many childrens lives were destroyed.

Before reading this book, I knew nothing of Georgia Tann and her organisation; although I am aware that there have been shocking abuses of power when it comes to children in countries the world over. Having read this book, I plan to delve into some research of my own and feel grateful to Lisa Wingate for writing this story and shedding light on this horrifying time in history with myself and other readers, in the hope that we may learn from it.

“For the hundreds who vanished and for the thousands who didn’t. May your stories not be forgotten. For those who help todays ophans find forever homes. May you always know the value of your work and your love”

Dedication at the beginning ot the book

Summary: A beautifully written, deeply moving and powerful piece of historical fiction. Keep a box of tissues handy!