Truth is stranger than fiction, the saying goes. It is also more heartbreaking. One of the saddest and strangest situations in history is the story of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society she operated. Georgia would abduct poor children by various illegal means: outright kidnapping, taking children born to unwed mothers for “medical care” and then telling the mothers their babies died; tricking parents into signing their children over to the home, and others. Policemen, family court judges, a crime boss, and others were a part of Tann’s network. The children they obtained would be adopted out to unsuspecting couples or sometimes sold to high-profile, wealthy families. Records were often destroyed or falsified. Even though Tann thought the children would be better off in their new situations, ultimately her enterprise was a money-making scheme. Tann died while she and the home were investigated, but before she could be brought to justice.
Lisa Wingate sets her novel Before We Were Yours in these circumstances.
Avery Stafford is a senator’s daughter being groomed to take his place. On a trip with her father to a nursing home, a resident pauses before Avery, seems to recognize her, and calls her “Fern.” An aide hustles the woman away, chalking the incident up to dementia. But the woman made off with Avery’s heirloom bracelet, and when Avery goes back to the woman’s room to retrieve it, she sees a framed photograph of a woman who looks remarkably like Avery’s grandmother. Conversations with the resident, May, lead Avery to look into her grandmother’s journals. Every scrap of information uncovered produces more questions. Avery isn’t sure what she will ultimately find or what the consequences will be, but she feels compelled to know the truth. And the process causes Avery to question whether she is living a “role” in life set out for her by others.
May’s story is told in flashbacks. She was born Rill Foss, the oldest of five children who lived with their parents on a houseboat. When Rill’s mother goes into hard labor, the midwife insists that she be taken to the hospital. While Rill’s parents are gone, a policeman comes to pick up the children, saying he will take them to see their parents. Instead, he takes them to a woman waiting in a nearby car, who whisks them away to a children’s home.
Children in the home are neglected, not well fed, and abused. But when potential adoptive parents come, the children are dressed up and threatened to be on their best behavior. One by one Rill’s siblings disappear, but when she protests or tries to thwart their removal, she is punished and her remaining siblings threatened.
Even though May’s history is heart-rending, ultimately the book ends redemptively and hopefully.
Lisa’s scenes on the river are so real, I could almost see and smell and feel the surroundings. I ached with May through her story and the ultimate hard choice she had to make, and rejoiced at how things wrapped up for her. And I enjoyed Avery’s story as well.
A very well-written, excellent book.