The plot of Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate, is so startling that it is hard to believe it is based on fact. So startling, in fact, that this reader kept going back to Wikipedia to confirm that the practice talked about in this excellent novel actually took place.
In the manner of many novels written today, the story comes from two viewpoints.
The first viewpoint is that of Rill Foss. It’s 1939, and Rill and her four younger sisters live with their parents on a riverboat outside of Memphis, Tennessee. They are dirt poor, but are a very happy family. One night, Rill’s mother goes into labor, and it isn’t long before they realize that the birth won’t be an easy one and can’t be handled by the local midwife. Rill’s father leaves her in charge while he takes his wife into the hospital in town.
A day or so later, a group of people claiming to have authority to do so come aboard the riverboat and take custody of the kids. The five girls are taken to an orphanage. They are told that their mother and the baby have died and that their father is too distraught to care for them.
The second story line takes place in contemporary time, and features Avery Stafford. Avery is the daughter of a South Carolina Congressman who is running for reelection. Avery works for her father, and is, in fact, being groomed to succeed him. While visiting a nursing home, Avery notices that a resident named May Crandall is wearing a bracelet just like one owned by her grandmother. She wants to find out if there is a link, but unfortunately her grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease.
In the way of many novels, Avery can’t let this go, despite her family’s encouragement to do so. And she eventually uncovers a truth about her family that will change her life.
Here is the part of the novel that is unbelievably and unfortunately true. The orphanage was, in fact, a place where people with enough money could buy a child. The woman who ran the orphanage was named Gloria Tann, and her adoption organization kidnapped mostly poor children and sold them from the 1920s until the government finally began looking into it in the 1950s. Tann died of cancer before the investigation became public.
While the subject matter is excruciatingly sad, Wingate’s writing is lovely and lyrical and makes the novel easy to read and not a tearjerker. The story is interesting, and while the ending was somewhat predictable, it made me happy nonetheless.
I enthusiastically recommend this novel.