Before We Were Yours





Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
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.

Far From the Tree


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Robin Benway
Genres: Young Adult
Read: Oct. 2017


I loved this!!

I don’t give very many books 5 stars. I’ve usually read most of the book before I realize it’s one of those really special books that deserves the extra star, but every now and then you find a book that you know you are going to love right off the bat. That’s what Far From the Tree was like for me.

I thought this book had the strongest start. It tells the story of 3 teenagers that had all been put up for adoption by their birth mom. Joaquin, the eldest, actually lived with his mother for a short period of time, but ended up in the foster care system for his entire life. He’s been in and out of over a dozen homes and has a very low self-worth, believing himself undeserving of any good thing.

Grace and Maya were luckier and we’re adopted by loving families at birth. Maya is the youngest and just a few months after she was adopted, her mom became pregnant with a miracle baby, Lauren. Lauren looks just like her parents and Maya struggles to fit in when she looks so different from the rest of her family. Grace is the middle child and is heartbroken after becoming pregnant at 16 and deciding to give her own baby, who she refers to as Peach, up for adoption.

The novel opens with Grace giving birth and then alternates each chapter from the point of view of each of the siblings. In the beginning, none of the siblings know each other. After giving up her baby, Grace is inspired to search for her own birth mother and discovers the existence of her 2 siblings and reaches out to them. Grace’s first chapter was so incredibly well written and heartbreaking that I immediately knew I was going to love this book. Funny enough, I read Robin Benway’s debut novel, Audrey, Wait! when I was actually a teenager and it was one of my favourite books at the time, but I stopped reading Benway after her second novel, which I found very disappointing. So it was a pleasant surprise to see this book nominated for the National Book Award (which it won) and I decided to re-visit her work.

Honestly, 2 of the first 3 chapters could have been standalone short stories and they still would have been fantastic. Grace and Joaquin were the most moving stories, but Maya still had a really interesting story arc as well. The emotions are just so well written in this book. Even though I’ve never been in the foster system or given up a baby at 16, their pain and heartbreak was so tangible and relatable. Benway tackled a lot of issues in this book and I felt every second of the story was important and meaningful.

To conclude, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing in this story and would highly recommend Far From the Tree to anyone and everyone!

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017


Where do I start with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane? There was so much going on in this book – the plot was so layered and there were so many interesting themes underlying the story, but somehow it all worked and was immensely compelling. (disclaimer: there may be a few spoilers in here, but I think most of what I talk about is covered in the synopsis, which is pretty detailed)

Goodreads has been selling this book to me hard all year with their advertising, but for some reason I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I read Dragon Springs Road earlier this year, which I liked but didn’t love. It’s probably unfair to compare the two books, just because they happen in China, but I found the pacing slow in Dragon Springs Road and I expected The Tea Girl to have a similar pacing, but I found this one so much more compelling. I don’t know a whole lot about Chinese culture, so I appreciated both novels and learned a lot, but there was a lot more going on in See’s novel.

Starting with the narrator, I absolutely loved Li-yan. She had such ambition, despite the constant belittlement from her family and the refrain that she was unimportant because she was a girl. Li-yan was born into the Ahka culture, which like many cultures, values boys far beyond girls. The Akha are a very tight knit people and view the village more as a collective than group of individuals. They believe everything has a spirit and they have many customs to protect against bad spirits and encourage good spirits. They believe it is everyone’s job to bring more children into the community and everyone always hopes for the birth of healthy sons.

I appreciated See’s writing because in the beginning the Ahka seemed so backwards to me and some of their practices were extremely horrifying. But throughout the course of the novel See was able to make me really appreciate their way of life and they did progress to abandon some of their more troubling customs (namely the killing of “human rejects”).

But I loved Li-yan because despite being told she was worth nothing, she had such ambition to pursue a better life through education and a desire to be someone. She convinces the village and her father to allow her to pursue her education and becomes the first educated person in the village. She faces so many struggles, but she always persevered and made choices (some of which were very tough) on what she felt was best for herself. Some readers might condemn her for giving up her child, but I didn’t fault her. She really would have had no life if she had decided to keep Yan-yeh. In many cases she was forced into some of her decisions, but I especially loved her decision to leave San-pa. I fully expected her to stick things out no matter how toxic things became, but when she finally recognized what was going on, she made a decision for herself to leave, even though she risked being sold or killed if she was caught.

She made so many wrong choices and at times really disappointed me, but I could sympathize with her decisions and forgive her for them. I was sad when she got distracted from her studies and ignored the advice of her family about San-pa, but she was so young and blinded by love, which I think we’ve all been at the young age of 16. She punished herself for so long after her failed marriage though and I was glad to see her find the strength to love again. 

I thought her relationship with her mother was beautiful. In the beginning I didn’t like A-ma because she was so harsh with Li-Yan, but she really grew on me and it was wonderful to watch their relationship grow and to see the softness in A-ma after the birth of Yan-yeh. I really enjoyed all the mother/daughter relationships in this book and the relationships between all of the women.

I didn’t enjoy the format of Hayley’s story as much (I think I would have preferred 1st person POV), but I learned a lot from her experience as well. I’ve thought about the challenges immigrants face in moving to America/Canada, but I haven’t put much thought into what it must be like to have parents that don’t look like you and to have so many stereotypes forced upon you. You always expect that your parents would be people that you could relate to and take advice from, but when your lived experience is so different from theirs, it must be so difficult not to have that shared experience and reassurance from your parents.

It was also interesting to learn a little bit about the one-child policy. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Chinese mothers and it’s upsetting to see girls so little valued in a culture. It was interesting to read about Li-yan’s experience giving up her daughter and I’d love to learn more from other perspectives of women who’ve had to make decisions to give up their daughters.

And of course there was the tea. I didn’t think I could find tea so fascinating! I had no idea there was so much history behind tea and I’d never heard of Pu’er tea, so it was interesting to learn about how tea production changed Yunnan province, world tea markets, and became such a phenomenon. What I really liked about this book is that it started in the 90’s. I couldn’t believe there were villages in China that were so remote and unconnected to the world within my lifetime. It was fascinating to see how they evolved and changed as the modern world came to them in search of tea. It gave me a whole new appreciation for tea!

There is so much going on in this novel, but it all worked and was immensely compelling. It was a beautiful novel about the struggles women face, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the ways in which we change and adapt to the world around us. Would definitely recommend!