Thursday, April 12, 2018

Fiction Review: Before We Were Yours

I just finished reading the best-selling novel Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and I couldn't wait to tell you about it. This truth-is-stranger-than-fiction novel grabbed me by the heart and never let me go. In fact, as soon as I finished it, I looked up more information online about the true story behind the fiction.

Twelve year-old Rill lives with her three younger sisters and two-year old brother on a shanty boat in the Mississippi River with her mother and father, affectionately known to all the kids as Queenie and Briny. They don't have much, but they all love each other very much, and the river provides for them, even during the depths of the Depression. When Queenie goes into labor for her twins too early and Briny has to take her in the johnboat across the river to Memphis to a hospital, Rill is left in charge of her siblings. Everything is going fine until police and other strangers arrive where they are tied to shore and cart all the children off to one of the orphanages of the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Amidst abuse and mistreatment, Rill tries to protect her younger siblings and keep their family together.

In the present day, a young lawyer named Avery Stafford has returned to her family home in South Carolina. Her father, a powerful Senator, is fighting cancer, though that fact is being kept from the public. Avery is there to help care for her father and also to prepare to possibly step into his role if needed, to keep their family's political dynasty alive. While there, Avery meets someone by chance who makes her begin to wonder if her family might have some long-kept secrets. Worried there might be a hidden scandal that could harm the Staffords, she begins to investigate, never guessing where her inquiries will lead.

In the early chapters of this novel, as I read about Rill and her siblings being illegally torn away from their parents and put up for adoption, I thought to myself, "This is just too horrifying - it's not realistic." So imagine my shock when I found out that part of the novel was actually based on the real-life story of Georgia Tann, director of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, who stole children from poor families and sold them for outrageous sums to wealthy parents desperate for children from the 1920's through the 1940's. That makes this novel all the more gripping and stunning. The story pieces together Rill's story bit by bit, with action moving from the past to the present, weaving together disparate threads until they finally come together.

Almost every member of our book group enjoyed this novel, and we had a good discussion about it last night, much of it focused on the real-life story behind the novel. Even though you kind of have the gist of the story from the beginning (it is, after all, based on real history), most of the characters in the novel are fictional, and some of the connections between past and present are only revealed toward the end of the book. Most of us were captivated by the story and characters. Overall, our group rated the novel 7.6 out of 10 (which is high for us) and several people (including me) rated it a 9. This gripping, moving story about a little-known historical horror kept me glued to the book, until I finished it in record time.

352 pages, Ballantine Books

For more information on the real-life scandal the novel is based on, watch this 60 Minutes segment on Georgia Tann, which aired in 1992:

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

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Listen to a sample of the audio here (I think this would be great on audio).

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  1. I am always shocked to hear that people felt it was okay to remove children from their parents and sell them to others! This one sounds really good.

    1. This situation was really bad - sometimes mothers still under sedation from childbirth were told their babies had died or kids were snatched right from their front porch or on their way to school! Really shocking stuff. The novel was great!

  2. I am going to look into this book. It sounds like one I would enjoy.

  3. The story of the novel sounds interesting and your blog post make me more excited about the story. I love to read the whole story. I will try to get ebooks download online so I can read the novel.