In real life of the 1920s into the 1950s a woman named Georgia Tann ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. From the outside it looked like Tann was performing a noble service by connecting orphans with new families. In truth her deputies roamed the countryside kidnapping children of poor families, treating them horribly in deplorable conditions until she could sell them to rich families.
“Essentially, if you were poor and you lived, stayed, or stopped over in the proximity of Memphis, your children were at risk.” [Notes: Loc 5641]
If a child was too much trouble they simply disappeared.
“Estimates as to the number of children who may have simply vanished under Georgia Tann’s management range as high as five hundred.” [Notes: Loc 5664]
Before We Were Yours is a fictional portrayal of this history told from two perspectives. The first thread takes place in the late 1930s when a girl, Rill Foss, and her younger siblings were kidnapped by Tann’s agents when her parents were temporarily away from the boat they all lived on. The second thread is the story of a rich and powerful woman, Avery Stafford, who stumbles upon a happenstance encounter with an old woman at a nursing home. The novel alternates the two narratives until the mystery is solved. There is an accompanying love story.
This was a hard book to read. I found myself putting it down when I got to a chapter on the harrowing circumstances of Rill, her siblings, and the others in the orphanage. I’d see the book just lying there waiting for me to pick it up; but I had to steel myself for those chapters. It’s also taken me two months to write this book report about it.
Lisa Wingate is a good storyteller as proven by the fact that this was on the New York Times best seller list. She employs some beautiful imagery of the South.
“The screens sway inward as the attic fan rattles overhead, pulling at wet air that has no desire to be moved.” [Loc 131]
If the subject matter hadn’t been so brutal I would have enjoyed her Wingate’s story telling more.