by LISA WINGATE
RANDOM HOUSE/BALLANTINE | June 2017
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION/
Review Source: ARC from NETGALLEY
Novel based on . . .
From 1924 through 1950, Beulah George “Georgia” Tann ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from a stately home on Poplar Avenue in Memphis, TN.
Tann used it as a front for an illegal foundling home and adoption agency that placed over 5,000 newborn infants and children, from toddlers up to age 16, to sell to what Ms. Tann called “high type” families in 48 states.
She used manipulation, deception, pressure tactics, threats, and brute force to take children from mainly poor single mothers in a five-state area to sell to unsuspecting wealthy parents.
After researching the [Tennessee Children’s Home Society] story, I couldn’t stop wondering about the thousands of children who had been brokered. . .
What became of them? Where are they now?”
Lisa Wingate, Author
Before We Were Yours
At the heart of Wingate’s newest novel lies the question – Do you really know your family history? Do you know what secrets are buried, that if exposed, could change your whole perspective on who you are and where you came from? What would you do if you suddenly found out something that could turn your life upside down? Could you live a life chosen for you rather than the life you were born to live?
The story unfolds in two voices – Avery Stafford, young, beautiful, and living the high-life in present day South Carolina and Rill Foss and her four siblings afloat their father’s scrap lumber shanty-boat in 1939 Memphis, Tennessee. As these two stories unfold, secrets and mysteries of the past are revealed that will forever change both of their lives.
Present day. . . Aiken, South Carolina
Wells Stafford, like his father before him, is known for his long and distinguished political service in the Senate. Senator Stafford is currently struggling after a cancer diagnosis threatens not only his life, but the traditions and lifestyle of his family. Is it time to groom his beautiful “brainiac” daughter to be his replacement?
While touring a local nursing home facility on her father’s behalf, Avery spots a photograph of four women; one of the ladies bears a striking resemblance to her Grandmother Judy. Why would this patient, May Crandall, have a picture of her grandmother? Avery’s inquisitive nature sends her on a mission to discover how this patient and her grandmother know each other.
As Avery Stafford is stalked by a staff of social secretaries and races through a power packed daily schedule day after day, she finds herself nagged by the picture of her grandmother frolicking with three strange women on a beach.
She begins to sneak time between photo shoots and ribbon cuttings to search for clues that eventually lead her to her family home on Edisto Island. What she finds there changes everything she thought she knew about herself and her future.
Memphis, Tennessee backwater, 1939
Briny and Queenie Foss, along with their five children, live the shantyboat life floating from river to river scrounging and hustling as needed to survive. Our shanty boat narrator, Queenie’s twelve-year old daughter, begins her story with her mother near death laboring to deliver twins aboard the boat. It soon becomes obvious that Queenie will die if she isn’t taken to a hospital for care and Briny makes the decision to take Queenie to town. He is forced to leave the younger children alone in the dead of night with his eldest daughter in charge. As the children hunker down terrified, fearful of bandits and mischief makers, the police arrive and take the children off the boat telling them they are taking them to see their parents. The confused and traumatized children are taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home where they are given new names and subjected to unimaginable horrors intended to break the children’s bond to the past.
While Avery searches for answers, May Crandall reminisces about life in 1939 and beyond.
She muses on her childhood life on the shanty boat with her free-spirit parents viewing it all through rose-colored glasses; right up until the happy times for the Foss family ended abruptly. Her fictional memories of the dark world at the Home will traumatize the reader with the truth that actually happened to real life children. Children forced to live in squalor and horror in the shadows and paraded in public as perfect models of angelic behavior for adoption to the highest bidder.
With each secret uncovered, Avery and May’s stories blend toward an inevitable revelation.
Blogger Thoughts . . .
The ending was obvious to me right from the beginning. There’s usually some misdirection to keep the reader engaged and in this case, I found myself staring at the incredible treatment of children as incentive enough to keep reading. The segments on the Children’s Home were hard to read.
It was difficult to rate the book. In the end, I found myself thinking a lot about the underlying theme that children’s futures are predetermined by the circumstance of birth. Can a child with memories of one life ever resolve what might have been had something dramatic not intervened and changed the course of their life? Can the past stay in the past? How will a future be affected by the past? Will secrets protect or harm future generations?