Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

A member of my book club chose this as one of our reads this year. The novel is based on a true part of America’s history: Georgia Tann and the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. According to historical records, Tann coerced parents to sign away the rights to their children, sometimes having mothers sign over their children while still part unconscious from childbirth. Sometimes Tann would resort to outright kidnapping. And then she sold the children for a high price to families desperate to adopt.

Wingate creates a fictional family—the five Foss children—who are left alone on their boat home on the Mississippi while their mother is taken to the hospital with complications trying to deliver twins. While alone, a group of adults kidnap the children, promising the children their parents will be there soon. This storyline, taking place in 1939, is one of two interwoven tales in the novel. We learn chronologically about the Foss children as they struggle to stay together and navigate the abusive orphanage.

The other storyline takes place in the present day. A 30-year old lawyer named Avery Stafford has returned to the South from Baltimore. She’s being groomed to be her father’s replacement in case the politician should have to lose office due to his bout with cancer. She’s not quite happy about her life, though she has accepted her place in the wealthy family and all the grooming it entails. Essentially, her life is a never-ending PR stunt. Every opportunity is taken to put a positive spin on the family, and there always seems to be an assistant watching her to make sure she isn’t tainting the family’s reputation. Her mother and future mother-in-law are constantly pestering her (and her fiance) to set a wedding date, reminding them that it would be a good PR opportunity should it be needed.

During a visit to a nursing home, Avery is “accosted” by one of the elderly residents, who takes her dragonfly bracelet, an heirloom from Avery’s grandmother (who is staying at a different, more expensive, retirement home). It’s clear that the old woman recognizes Avery, or at least the bracelet, which leads Avery to put her lawyer skills to good use, tracking down the truth about her family’s history and its connection to the Children’s Home Society. Avery is tough and not easily intimidated, and once she commits to solve the mystery, it happens fairly quickly.

Throughout the tale, we hear two voices: Avery’s 30-year-old voice, and the voice of a young adolescent (identify withheld: spoilers), who was part of the Children’s Home scandal. I enjoyed the younger voice more. It’s less obvious and more honest. Avery was never allowed to be honest with herself, and she isn’t until the very end, making some of the plot points fairly obvious. Perhaps that is the point.

As I read this novel for a YA reading group, I wanted to include a bit about appropriateness for the classroom. There are no explicit scenes in this book. At the children’s home, there is some violence and suggestions of sexual abuse, but nothing too explicit. If it were a movie, I’d see it as a PG-13 if they included the fight scenes as written–but moreso because of the unpleasantness of the living conditions at the orphanage and the threats made by the workers there.

In terms of under-represented groups, there are the “river gypsies” referenced in the 1939 chapters—families reminiscent of the culture in Huck Finn (which is referenced several times throughout the novel). The orphans themselves offer a reminder that not everyone has a stress-free family situation. Even the wealthy who adopted the children were fighting their own battles (infertility, infant loss). And then there is a glimpse of the working classes—those who served the wealthy families and those who were so desperate for a job that they stayed at the Children’s Home Society despite what was happening there. In Avery’s time, there is the political issue that is still important today: the fact that those without lots of money are often forced to live in less-than-ideal senior living situations.

The reading level was not difficult (though there is some old-fashioned language in the chapters from 1939). An average high school reader would be able to read it with little trouble (though it’s not an easy read for that age; it’s more of an adult than a YA novel). The style was rather simple. There were not passages of swirling metaphors or beautiful prose that stood out; rather, the focus was on the story itself. I wonder, though, if a high-school student would be able to relate. The two protagonists are slightly younger than a high-schooler and more than a decade older.

While I thought I would not relate to Avery because of her family’s wealth and political savviness, I ended up feeling sorry for her. It was clear by the end that she was in her own type of prison—the same way that one of the Foss children felt imprisoned even when adopted into a wealthy household. Her decisions were not her own. As the novel points out, it’s the same reason Huck Finn decided to run away at the end of Twain’s novel: personal freedom was more important to him than anything else. It’s a lesson Avery embraced by the end.

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