The historical fiction genre has taught me so much in my adult life. More than I learned growing up and “sleeping” during history classes because they were so boring. This time around, my mind was blown and my heart was broken by Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Lisa tackles the story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage and the director Georgia Tann.
Before We Were Yours is about the Foss family who live on the family’s shantyboat, named the Arcadia, on the Mississippi River near Memphis in 1939. There are five children – the oldest, Rill is 12, then Camilla, Fern, Lark and Gabion. The story opens with their Mom, Queenie, trying to give birth to twins. When it becomes too much, their Dad, Briny, must take Queenie to the mainland to a hospital before a big storm rolls in.
The next day, Rill hears voices and thinks Briny is back. But instead, several police officers come and round up the children, put them in a black car with Georgia Tann and taken to an orphanage. Rill doesn’t understand what is happening to them but feels she needs to take care of her siblings and make sure they are together when Briny comes to pick them up. But she soon realizes that things are not what they appear to be. Tann immediately renames the children and soon they start to disappear.
Then we jump to present time and Avery Stafford is home in Memphis helping take care of her father, a senator going through cancer treatment. Her grandma Judy has recently been placed in a high-end nursing home into the Alzheimer’s ward. While visiting another nursing home, not as nice as where Grandma Judy is living, a strange woman gives Avery a hug from the back. Avery meets May Cranford, who has a photo with Grandma Judy in it and Grandma Judy looks a lot like May.
Lisa Wingate does a great job of slowly revealing the Foss children’s fate through Rill’s eyes and what happened to them through Avery’s eyes as she learns more and more about Grandma Judy’s connection to May and what secrets she has been keeping.
Georgia Tann is one of our great country’s criminals and was very sneaky for almost 30 years. She appeared to the outside world like she was acting out of concern for the orphaned children but in fact she stole more than 5,000 children and procured their adoptions to the highest bidder. Tann brokered the adoptions of the children like they were property. She even went back to some of the couples who adopted the children and extorted more money from them.
Tann visited hospitals and would convince mothers that had just given birth, still under sedation, to sign papers giving up their babies. She had doctors and nurses in her pocket who would tell parents their babies had died when in fact she would take them and adopt them out.
Tann also had people working for her who would snatch kids right off the streets and didn’t have any issues because she had the police, politicians and the courts in her back pocket. The woman made millions off these children. Some of the famous people who adopted from Tann are Joan Crawford, June Allyson and Dick Powell and New York Governor Herbert Lehman.
Before We Were Yours, made me think about my own daughter and what if someone took her from me. What would I do if I found out she was gone, never to be found again. I then think about the immigrant families who have had their children ripped from them. Children shipped across the country just like Tann adopting children out around this country.
This is a heartbreaking story but one that I think people should not forget.
THE BLOCKBUSTER HIT—A New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Publishers Weekly Bestseller
For readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale comes a “thought-provoking [and] complex tale about two families, two generations apart . . . based on a notorious true-life scandal.”*
Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.
Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.
Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.
Until next time…enjoy the view from your passenger seat