It is a testament to the popularity and impact of Before We Were Yours that there are dozens of copies in the library consortium where I have borrowing privileges, and most are on hold for someone, or checked out. Lisa Wingate is widely acknowledged to be a master storyteller, and that mastery is fully on display in this book. It is a satisfying read, if not always enjoyable.
The narrative is divided between 1939 and the present day. In 1939 five children in a poor family living on a shanty boat on the Mississippi River are kidnapped from their home while their mother is taken to a hospital for what has become the difficult birth of twins. The children are taken to an orphanage run by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, where they are mistreated and ultimately delivered for adoption by wealthy couples. In the present day the granddaughter of the oldest of the five children, who has no idea of her family’s true history, is distracted from her promising political life by an encounter with another survivor of the orphanage. The encounter sends the politician grandchild on a search for details of her grandmother’s past.
The crimes of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and specifically of Georgia Tann, are described in vivid if not quite graphic detail. Graphic detail is not required; it would rob the victims of what little innocence they retain. Those crimes should shock even the most callous readers nonetheless. Moreover, human beings are capable of carrying out or looking away from great evil. It is still hard to believe that Georgia Tann could carry on as she did in full view of law enforcement personnel, hospital staff, and judges.
A few details of the story that Lisa Wingate delivers seem out of place. Zuma, the housekeeper for the family that adopts Rill/May and Fern, refers to them as “river rats” on page 236. The details of the children’s previous lives are carefully hidden, however, so how did she know to call them that? Also, we learn on page 239 that Zuma has raised Mr. Servier from childhood, yet she has a child of her own who is only ten years old at the time of Rill and Fern’s arrival. Finally, the romance that builds between two of the characters in the present-day half of the narrative is charming, but one wonders if it adds anything to the story. Maybe I just want the present-day lives to serve as means of uncovering the truth of the past and nothing more; I don’t want to invest them with stories of their own.
Never mind those quibbles, though. This excellent book tells a moving story of surviving and thriving despite being caught in a world of evil and greed.
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