Review: Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 4 (Content Warning: Sexual and physical abuse of children)
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

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 the dark truth. 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 to 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—Lisa 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.

Before We Were Yours is the quintessential historical fiction of the 2010s. The dual timelines, one in the past and one in the present that are interwoven and come to a climax in parallels, is done as well as I’ve ever seen it. The historical event it re-tells, the adoptions of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, is heart-wrenching and relatively unknown. Wingate’s writing is accessible and draws you in.

But I’ve read so many books like this one. I’m personally just tired of dual timeline historical fiction. In addition, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society just wasn’t that shocking to me, and I think a great deal of this book hinged on shock value. I already knew this sort of thing went on, and honestly worse things are happening to children in America in 2020. So for me it wasn’t as absorbing as it could have been.

Wingate really captures the differences in languages of the dual timelines. Avery reads like the privileged southern girl she is, while Rill’s voice transports you to a 30s era river gypsy boat. The dialogue in particular captured each woman’s voice so well. Both characters were complex and interesting. I especially loved Rill’s fierce loyalty not only to her family, but to her beloved way of life. Avery, on the other hand, questions whether the life she has always led is the life she really wants. Her uncertainty is a lovely foil to Rill’s determination.

Wingate’s historical elements are well-researched and evocative. She paints a picture, both of the Mississippi River and of the orphanage. Her characters have utterly believable personalities. Unfortunately, her descriptions of abuse of the children are not only believable, but all too real. While Rill is not real, her character and story were created by Wingate based on interviews of survivors of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. If you can’t handle child abuse, do NOT read the author’s note. I will note that sexual abuse is not on the page, merely implied, however that does not make the characters’ reactions any less heartbreaking or difficult. There are chapters that a very difficult.

I also appreciate how sensitively Wingate approached the subject of adoption. The children, who want to be loved, but also are afraid of their new families or miss the old families. How the adoptive parents were well intentioned, or in some cases even unaware their child was stillborn. Yet, in other cases, the adoptive parents were abusive or took advantage of the children. Though Mrs. Tann is presented as a villain in the story, it’s impossible to deny that she changed the way people view adoption for the better. This is not a black and white issue, and I’m impressed by how well Wingate handled that.

However, the story was predictable to a fault. By the end of the first chapter I had figured out how Avery and Rill were connected, though it’s possible you are meant to. But I found that I always knew exactly what was going to happen, even down to small plot points. I don’t need constant shockers, but I don’t like to know the ending by the tenth page either.

I also found Avery’s privilege insufferable. Her rich white version of feminism really rubbed me the wrong way, and her inability to understand why people would be upset that she could afford to put her grandmother in a facility three times more expensive than what the government subsidized was the final straw. I don’t often get political when I’m reading, but since she was a future senator, she should really be able to see both sides of an issue.

I did appreciate that this story didn’t revolve around a romance. There is one there, but it isn’t the centerpiece. It’s more part of the women’s discovery of who they are.

I highly recommend Before We Were Yours to fans of Kristin Hannah, Deliah Owens, and Chanel Cleeton. Outstanding writing, especially dialogue, and I think it’s important that Wingate told this story.

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