Author: Lisa Wingate
Narrated By: Emily Rankin
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub Date: June 2017 (read Mar. 2018 as an Audiobook)
I listened to Before We Were Yours as an audiobook. It reminded me a lot of The Alice Network, which I also listened to as an audiobook and had a similar format, alternating back and forth between a present day and historical perspective based on true events. I thought The Alice Network told a fascinating story about a real-life individual, Louise de Bettignies, who ran a spy network in World War I, but I found the second narrative boring, poorly written, and unnecessary to the story. Fortunately I felt differently about Before We Were Yours and while I still thought the writing was a little cliche in places, I thought this story was better done overall.
The whole present day narrator investigating the past is such a common troupe in historical fiction and a lot of the time it’s just not well done (also thinking of The Life She Was Given) but I didn’t mind it too much in this book. In my opinion, this troupe doesn’t always add something meaningful to the story, but I do think this element worked in this book because of the way that families were torn apart and how it took many families generations to reunite, if at all. Audiobooks also tend to make the writing seem a little cheesy and there were definitely parts where I rolled my eyes, but overall this translated well in audiobook and I thought the narrator was fantastic.
Let’s get into the plot. Before We Were Yours focuses on a little known piece of American history that is both fascinating and horrifying. The story starts in Tennessee in 1939 and looks at real-life individual Georgia Tann and her work with the Tennessee Children’s Home. Rill Foss and her 4 siblings have grown up as river gypsies, living in a house boat, running their way up and down the Mississippi River. At the beginning of the novel, their mother is about to give birth with the help of a midwife, but things become complicated when they discover she’s actually pregnant with twins and the midwife forces her to go to a hospital to deliver the babies. The rest of the children spend the night on the river boat with Rill in charge.
However, the following day the police show up and basically kidnap them before dropping them off at the Tennessee Children’s Home. Rill has no idea what happened to her parents or why they’ve been forced to stay at the Children’s Home, but does her best to keep her siblings together, despite the horrors they start to experience.
At the same time, we’re learning about Avery Stafford. A wealthy young lawyer who has returned to her childhood home in South Carolina to be groomed to take over her father’s role as a senator. On a political visit to a senior’s home, she bumps into a old woman named May who seems to know her grandmother and is drawn into a decades old mystery of how these women are connected and what threat this mystery might pose to Avery and the Stafford family in her bid for senator.
Georgia Tann is a real life woman who is often known as the “mother of modern adoption”. She ran the Tennessee Children’s Home, which took care of orphans and children whose parents were too poor to properly take care of them or who turned them over to the state for care. Tann oversaw the care of the children and worked to find them all loving homes (for a price). But what was not known until later is the horrifying conditions the children were forced to live in, the ways they were abused, how they were exploited for financial gain, and the horrifying circumstances through which many of the children were obtained.
While Tann did undoubtedly (indirectly) rescue many children from poor conditions and abusive families and place them in loving wealthy families, she also obtained a lot of the children through shocking means. Some children were kidnapped out of their family homes or off the street, like Rill and her siblings, while others were obtained by tricking the birth mother or parents who were often poor or illiterate. Tann had workers in hospitals who would tell mothers that their newborns had died or trick them into signing papers giving up their children to the state, while Tann would take the children and sell them to wealthy buyers. The extent of the network that Tann had set up is actually shocking and it’s hard to believe that so many people were able to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the children and the birth parents.
Many victims on Tann’s schemes were abused or died while in her care. She did everything to ensure that the children’s families would never be able to find or reunite with their children and separated many siblings, destroying any paper trail that might enable to birth parents to try and get their children back. Equally shocking was that she would sometimes later even harrass the adoptive parents to get further payments from them under the guise of lawyer fees.
Unfortunately Tann was never prosecuted for her crimes as she was very old and sick before they were ever discovered and people generally were of the opinion that the wealthy adoptive families were more fit to raise the children than the poor families would have been anyways. I thought this was a fascinating opinion, although Wingate didn’t explore it very extensively in the novel. I think it’s a question that is still relevant today. Do poor parents not deserve the right to raise their own children just because someone else could better financially provide for their children? Is money all that matters when it comes to raising a child? What is the long term impact on a child who has been stolen away from their biological parents, whether they can remember it or not?
It was a really interesting story and I did find myself engrossed in both May’s story and Avery’s story. Audiobooks aren’t my favourite way to read because I find they are very exposing of an author’s writing, which can sometimes detract from the story. Like I said, this still had some cliche writing, but overall, I did like this book and was fascinated by the piece of history that it exposed.