7 min read ⌚
Consider yourself lucky if you have been born in a family that’s showered you with love and affection throughout most of your life. Most of the people aren’t so lucky.
Both touching and hope-instilling, Lisa Wingate’s “Before We Were Yours” is about the least fortunate among them.
Who Should Read “Before We Were Yours”? And Why?
“Before We Were Yours” is a touching story about families broken apart and families reunited. It should move deeply almost anyone with a human heart – even though
Unlike most of Lisa Wingate’s books, “Before We Were Yours” is based on real-life historical events, making the novel an appealing read for those interested to find out more about one of the greatest scandals in post-war American history: the child trafficking of the 1950s and the black-market baby adoption scheme run by Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Lisa Wingate Biography
Lisa Wingate is an American novelist, whose style has been described as “masterful,” “lyrical” and “healing” by various publications.
She is the author of twenty novels, some of which are part of series, and almost all of which have been shortlisted for some award. Among them: the Utah Library Award, the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, the LORIES Best Fiction Award, the Oklahoma Book Award, the Carol Award, etc.
“Before We Were Yours” won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for historical fiction.
Find out more at http://lisawingate.com/
“Before We Were Yours Summary”
Because, you see, the book is split into two alternating storylines, happening in two different time periods and involving a different set of characters. However, if we try to mimic the structure here, we’ll end up writing a sentence related to the first story, followed by a sentence about the second one.
Which, let’s face it, instead of helping you understand what “Before We Were Yours” is all about will lead to you questioning the sanity of your summarizers.
And we wouldn’t want that, would we?
So, let’s split our summary into two sections so you can follow the two main stories better.
Don’t worry: we’ll link them in the Epilogue.
1. The Story of Rill Foss (Memphis, 1939)
It’s 1939, the year the Great War commenced on the European continent.
Rill Foss is a twelve-year-old girl, the oldest of the five children of Queenie and Briny, only one of whom is a boy.
Now, life hasn’t been all too kind to Queenie and Briny and their children. They don’t even have a proper home, living on a shanty boat called (ironically) “The Arcadia” on the Mississippi River.
To make matters even more complicated, Queenie is currently pregnant with twins.
When, one night, she goes into labor, Briny has to take her to the hospital and leaves Rill in charge of the children.
And you already know that something terrible is about to happen.
You’re right: it does.
Soon after Briny and Queenie leave, a group of policemen climb the shanty boat and forcefully take the children away, sending them to an orphanage.
Rill, being 12 years old, is unable to do anything about it. And this tortures her for the rest of her life.
But, come on, you may say, police officers kidnapping children in 1939 in the U.S. and sending them to orphanages? Arriving at the exact same moment the parents aren’t there?
Isn’t this a bit stretched?
Not only it isn’t stretched – it is also very, very real.
As in: it happened, and the orphanage Rill and her siblings go to truly existed.
It was called Tennessee Children’s Home Society (TCHS), and it did exactly what you just read: it kidnapped children from low-income families and gave them away to affluent couples.
Its Memphis branch operator was the notorious Georgia Tann – remembered in history as “The Baby Thief” – who appears as a character in “Before We Were Yours” as well.
She is, in fact, one of the three cruel women who run the TCHS, together with Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Pulnik.
It doesn’t take too long for Rill and the children to realize that they are not going to see their parents ever again.
It doesn’t take long for them to start hating life and everything in it, because their experience in TCHS, is, more or less, the female version of “Sleepers.”
Starvation, mistreatment, abuse – that’s how the days go by for the siblings. Camelia is even raped by one of the members of TCHS staff, Mr. Riggs. After some time, she disappears – never to be seen again.
Miss Tann tries to convince Rill that Camelia never existed in the first place.
One by one, the other children are adopted into wealthy families.
Rill and her sister Fern are seemingly the luckiest of them all: they end up together, and they end up with Mr. and Mrs. Sevier.
Mr. Sevier is a goodhearted wealthy composer. His wife, Mrs. Sevier, wasn’t able to have a baby (losing several in childbirth) so she’s more than happy with the fact that she finally has children to care for.
However, the Seviers don’t know the real names of the children, calling them May and Beth – the names Rill and Fern got after being admitted to the TCHS.
The days go by in relative happiness.
But, one day, the Seviers are visited by Georgia Tann.
If you have ever watched “Les Mis,” you’ve already guessed what Tann wants: more money. And if you’ve read carefully up till now, you’ll understand us for having second thoughts on using Georgia Tann birthname.
Maybe we would have done more justice to the real facts of the story if we just called her Beelzebub!
Anyway, Rill and Fern are too afraid to risk going back to the TCHS, so they decide to run away.
And they successfully reach their shanty boat. However, there they meet their childhood friend Silas who tells them that their mother has recently passed away and that their father is an alcoholic.
Just a few days later, their shanty boat burns down.
Briny is not found.
Silas helps Rill and Fern go back to the Seviers, where they decide to spend the rest of their childhoods.
2. The Story of Avery Stafford (Aiken, South Carolina, present day)
The successful federal prosecutor Avery Stafford is the daughter of a virtuous senator and the fiancée of a handsome guy called Elliot.
She’s being groomed to take her father’s seat in the Senate, especially now when her father’s health is getting worse.
One day, during a visit to a local nursing home as part of her father’s political campaign, Avery’s bracelet is stolen by one of the residents.
She’s called by the nursing home’s staff to retrieve it, and there she meets with the resident, a senior woman who goes by the name of Mrs. Crandall.
Avery’s left flabbergasted by one of the photographs in her room since the people on that photo look a lot like the people in her grandmother’s family.
The story would have been a shorter one, for sure, if her grandmother Judy hadn’t had Alzheimer’s.
Being unable to learn anything from her, Avery embarks on a personal investigation which includes reading through Judy’s old diaries.
There she finds a phone number from a certain Trent Turner living on Edisto Island who may know something about her grandmother’s past.
Avery travels there, and she does meet a Trent Turner, only it’s not the one with the info, but his grandson – who goes by the same name!
(Writers never seize to amaze us: they can invent intricate plots and sumptuously beautiful words almost at will, but when it comes to character names – they prefer the use the same ones over and over again!)
Anyway, Trent is a good guy and, even though initially reluctant, he eventually shows her the adoption papers of a certain Shad Foss dated 1939.
Also, he’s somewhat charming and – to cut a long story short – Avery breaks up the engagement with Elliot.
Before We Were Yours Epilogue
OK – Shad Foss is obviously someone related to Rill Foss from our first storyline.
But, how? Who is he exactly?
It turns out that Shad is one of the twins born on the night Rill Foss and her four siblings were kidnapped by the police.
Judy’s, Avery’s grandmother.
And you know what?
Judy is exactly twelve years younger than Mrs. Crandall.
Whose name is May.
Yes – the one Rill Foss was given at the TCHS!
So, May and Judy are sisters as well.
Which means that Avery’s bracelet was stolen by her grandaunt!
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“Before We Were Yours Quotes”But the love of sisters needs no words. It does not depend on memories, or mementos, or proof. It runs as deep as a heartbeat. It is as ever-present as a pulse. Click To Tweet Well, that’s one of the paradoxes of life. You can’t have it all. You can have some of this and some of that or all of this and none of that. We make the trade-offs we think are best at the time. Click To Tweet In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It is merely a terrible by-product of surviving. Click To Tweet One of the best things a father can do for his daughter is let her know that she has met his expectations. My father did that for me, and no amount of effort on my part can fully repay the debt. Click To Tweet It’s funny how what you’re used to seems like it’s right even if it’s bad. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
A review by Jackie K. Cooper for the “Huffington Post” dubbed “Before We Were Yours” a “near perfect novel,” and commended its two-viewpoints structure and the style of Lisa Wingate.
A compelling storyteller, Wingate juggles remarkably well with the two timelines, managing to keep the reader hooked chapter after chapter and, moreover, to profoundly touch him/her through the very same scenes which may have sounded too melodramatic in the hands of a less capable writer.
“There are a lot of books that will catch your eye this summer,” concludes Cooper at the end of her 2017 review, “some from our best storytellers. Make sure this one is on your radar. It should not be missed.”
Another summer is before us, and, as we all know, good books don’t age.
So, forgive us for merely repeating what Cooper wrote a year ago: take “Before We Were Yours” with you on your summer holiday.
But don’t read it on the beach if you don’t want to be seen crying in public.