Prather’s Pick: ‘Before We Were Yours,’ a powerful novel
“Before We Were Yours,” by Lisa Wingate, is a new novel based on a true story. It’s a powerful novel that is destined to haunt the reader — I know it has been haunting me.
According to the author, the Foss children, the main characters in the book, are from her imagination. However, she writes, “Their experiences mirror those reported by children who were taken from their families from the 1920s through 1950.”
The Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an orphanage and part of the setting for the novel, is an actual place, and the home’s director, Georgia Tann, is an actual person. In the “Author’s Notes,” Wingate provides a brief history (with sources the reader can consult) as to Tann’s notorious dealings.
Children from single mothers, indigent parents, welfare cases and other unfortunate situations were the targets. They were taken “without cause or due process.” Their names were changed, and their backgrounds made up. They were then sold to wealthy families, such as movie stars. Not only that, the children were not treated well. They were often neglected and even abused. Eventually, word got out about the orphanage, causing a scandal, but not before Tann had made a million dollars.
Children with blonde hair and blue eyes were the biggest targets. That’s where the fictional story in “Before We Were Yours” begins — with the Foss children. After a prelude, which the reader will want to revisit later, the first chapter introduces Avery Stafford, a federal prosecutor, who is in Aiken, South Carolina, because her senator father is ill. He’s not ill enough to stop working, however, so, as the novel opens, they are headed to an elder care facility, where one of the residents is celebrating her 100th birthday. The visit is important, because there is a controversy surrounding nursing homes.
While there, Avery meets a resident who comes up behind her and says “Fern?” The woman is May Crandall, and Avery’s blonde hair has triggered memories of her sister, Fern. The next day, Avery goes back to the home to retrieve a bracelet and notices a photo in May’s room. She’s surprised that her grandmother is in the photo. It’s the beginning of Avery’s investigation about her grandmother and May’s relationship.
The chapters are narrated by two characters, providing the reader with information about past and present events. In Chapter 3, the Foss family is aboard their shanty boat, the Arcadia, on the Mississippi River. Queenie, the mother, is in childbirth. The events are related by 12-year-old Rill. Other children in the family are Gabin, 2; Lark, 6; Amellia, 10; and Fern, 4. All except Amellia have blonde, curly hair and blue eyes.
Queenie is about to deliver twins, except \she can’t. The father, Briny, has to get her to a doctor fast, so he leaves the children on the boat. The next day, some policemen show up saying they are going to take the children to see their parents. However, the children are met by Miss Tann, who instead takes them to the Tennessee Children’s Home.
What becomes of the children? How is their case related to Avery’s grandmother? There’s a lot to this novel. I couldn’t put it down.
“Before We Were Yours” is published by Ballantine Books, 2017. It costs $26 in hardcover, or you can find it at the Craig/Moffat County Library.