One of the cool things about historical fiction is the way a well-written novel will bring to life a period or an aspect of history you might never have heard of otherwise. Lisa Wingate’s new novel, Before We Were Yours, does just that, turning as it does on the real-life horrors of an infamous adoption scheme from Tennessee in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
The book follows the stories of two different women, Rill, who starts out with her poor family living on a houseboat on the Mississippi River in 1939, and Avery, a successful lawyer living in present-day South Carolina, two people who wouldn’t seem to have anything in common, though of course they do (they wouldn’t both be in the book otherwise, right?).
Rill is keeping an eye on her four younger siblings when her mother goes into labor and her father has to accompany her mother to a hospital on the mainland. Then everything goes wrong for the family. The children are dragged off their houseboat home by official-looking people and put in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society Orphanage, for what they are assured is a short stay until their parents can come and pick them up again. This is a lie; they have fallen into the clutches of Georgia Tann, who sees the children who come into her custody as resources, to be stolen from their biological families and, if they’re desirable, sold to rich families. If they’re not desirable, they are left to starve or to suffer other horrible kinds of abuse. Rill is desperate to keep her family together, but she’s just a 12 year old herself.
Avery, in modern day America, goes home to Tennessee to help her Senator father with some health issues. In the course of visiting a nursing home, she discovers a completely unrelated older woman who somehow has a picture of Avery’s grandmother. Avery’s grandmother is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s and her memory is going, so for Avery to find out what the connection is between her grandmother and this other woman, she’s going to have to work hard and dig deeply into whatever information is available. The answers she finds, though, shake her to the core, making her question everything she thought she knew about her family and her background.
Based on actual heartbreaking records of the wrongs done to poor families by a sociopathic woman with connections to the state and the law, Before We Were Yours is a great example of how to do historical fiction right.