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August 16, 2017

Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours

By: Lisa Wingate


The cover image on this book grabbed my attention as I scrambled to select a title before heading off on a beach vacation; two tow-headed girls are seated on a trunk. Shot from behind, you see that they are on a dock, looking out over water. The older child sits ramrod straight while the little one clutches a stuffed bear. Who are they? Where are they going? Why are they alone? I had not yet read any of Lisa Wingate’s work but I was intrigued.

Wingate recalls that she was always compelled to write. Even as a child, she was revered as a storyteller. She began her professional writing career as a journalist and technical writer, and then turned to fiction after becoming a parent. She now has 27 novels to her name, with this being the most recent.

Before We Were Yours is a work of historical fiction, which delves into the nefarious activities of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis TN during the 1930s and beyond. Tann operated a black market adoption racket out of the home – abuse of the young wards was common. Tann condoned the kidnapping or misappropriation of many poor children to supply the requirements of her often-unsuspecting clientele. Many of the prospective parents were desperate for a child and did not ask questions about where they came from. After the initial pairing, Tann and her associates would then turn the situation against the besotted parents, demanding additional payments to ensure the status quo.

The story slips back and forth in time, allowing the reader to discover the long-hidden connection between past and present, as the narrative unfolds.  Avery Stafford is our guide to the present – she is a young and influential young woman who has recently abandoned her career as a federal prosecutor in Washington DC. She has returned home to Aiken, SC in order to assist her ailing father, a U.S. Senator. The Staffords are grooming Avery to take her father’s place in the Senate, should his health require it. Ensuring the family political dynasty is sacrosanct to its members, all of whom will sacrifice almost anything to protect its unblemished reputation.

When the mercurial Stafford matriarch, Grandma Judy, develops dementia, some mysterious connections begin to surface. In an effort to shield her family, Avery is compelled to unravel past events based on clues found in Judy’s old letters and journals. Along the way, she encounters Trent Turner, grandson to an associate of Judy’s. Though she is engaged to an old friend who has her family’s seal of approval, Avery is drawn to Trent. He becomes her ally in a convoluted quest for the truth about her family’s heritage.

The past, circa 1939, is viewed through the eyes of 12-year-old Rill Foss, eldest of the five children of Briny and Queenie, who all inhabit a shanty boat called the Arcadia. Sailing the Mississippi River is the life they love; they don’t have much but manage to get by with guile and determination, despite Briny’s love for drink. This life comes into jeopardy when Queenie experiences a difficult labor and Briny must take her to seek emergency medical care. The children are left alone, with Rill in charge of her siblings. When Briny fails to return after several days, their apparent abandonment comes to the attention of the police. The authorities quickly deliver Rill and her charges to the “care” of the aforementioned Georgia Tann. The conditions they endure at the home are deplorable. Rill’s determination to keep her siblings safe and secure until Briny finds and reclaims them is inadequate to fight the Georgia Tann racket.

Linking these two stories across decades and generations, Lisa Wingate weaves a compelling tale that will reveal the underside of post-Depression era life for many families. Poor and uneducated parents lost custody of their children, who were reallocated into new families – but only those who had the means to pay into Georgia Tann’s coffers. Sadly, local authorities knew of and colluded in this travesty. The beauty of historical fiction is that the reader can learn about another time in an intimate and personal way. Using parallel narratives, Wingate will keep you guessing about the Foss/Stafford connection until the last chapter brings it all into focus.

Review By:  Pam Lamberger