I’ll begin with the cover of this riveting, beautiful book: two blonde, young girls dressed in white cotton sit on a suitcase—one with a long braid, the other holding a teddy-bear, her arm behind her back as the pair face a body of water from a dock. Already there is a sense of longing before the reader gets to page one. We know from the title that there is a backstory waiting to be revealed, something the reader of this present tense, first-person story set in two timeframes and told through two points of view doesn’t know, but should.
Before We Were Yours is based on a true atrocity: In the 1930’s, until 1950, an orphanage in Memphis was run by deplorable means for profit, its despicable matron, Georgia Tann, acquiring newborns and young children through any means necessary, posing as the soul of compassion, yet tied in with a corrupt network that condoned illegal, heartbreaking practices of snatching the young from impoverished circumstances under the guise of placing them in better homes. Many confused souls suffered: destitute mothers in post-partum twilight sleep, unaware of the paper they’d signed relinquished their offspring to the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Names were changed, histories were expunged, case files were sealed, and many were fated as victims set on a life-course of Georgia Tann’s self-serving making.
This is a tale of far-reaching history told personally. Author Lisa Wingate gifts us with the voice of young Rill Foss, the eldest of five children raised on a Mississippi river-boat shanty by parents who can provide love, but little else. When her mother is rushed to a Memphis hospital in peril from the coming birth of twins, it is Rill left to hold down the docked fort for her siblings, unaware that they are all sitting ducks, unguarded in the face of Georgia Tann’s profiteering scheme.
The reader learns the Foss children’s’ story in hindsight. It is present day, and thirty-year-old lawyer, Avery Stafford, in the name of her family’s politically high-profile status, stumbles upon an old woman in a nursing home, while making a public appearance. When the old woman’s story is launched, past and present are woven seamlessly in a coincidental, unravelling of mysteries that pull at the heartstrings all the way through.
It takes a seasoned and gifted writer to emblematically take the harrowing premise of one family torn asunder by the institution of a real life, black-market network and leave us with resounding outrage by crafting the story as a tale of personal injustice. In pitch-perfect language, Before We Were Yours is a search for identity told at its most beautiful. It entices with a sense of urgency through immediate emotional investment and miraculously manages to satisfy the reader through the disturbing arc of a truth laid bare.