I hold Huckleberry Finn real tight against my chest and start across the yard. Now we can leave this place behind anytime we want. All we gotta do is join up with Huckleberry Finn. There’s room on his raft for all five of us, I’ll bet. Maybe we’ll find the Arcadia out there somewhere.
I sat for a good 20 minutes trying to figure out what to say to convince you all to read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and there just aren’t enough words for it. If you haven’t read it yet, please, please read it! This is historical fiction based on the true story of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society that operated in the early half of the twentieth century. It is shocking, heartbreaking, important, and, at its heart, hopeful. This was our Bucket List Book Club selection for May, and I am so, so glad that I read it.
The story is told in alternating chapters. It begins in Memphis in 1939 with Rill Foss and her 4 brothers and sisters. They live on a boat in the Mississippi River with their parents, but when their mom must be rushed to the hospital during a difficult birth, the 5 remaining children are taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in order to be placed (sold) with other (wealthy) families who are looking to adopt. In present day Aiken, South Carolina, Avery Stafford is busy building her career as a lawyer, taking care of her ailing politician father, and figuring out if she really wants to be with her fiancé. When a chance encounter with an elderly woman in a nursing home, she begins to look into her family’s past and discovers some secrets she’s not sure if she’s ready to find out. The two stories weave themselves together and illustrate the truth behind the Children’s Home: families were torn apart, siblings were separated, and it was by pure luck if they were able to find each other again later in life.
There is a mystery in the novel, namely the journey the Foss kids went through, how they were separated, and where they all ended up. While this particular story is made up, it is heavily rooted in truth. Children were taken from their families (always poor families who were unable to fight and get their kids back) and sold to wealthy families who wanted to adopt. My heart broke for the children in this novel (who represent real people). They had no one to advocate for them, and were expected to trust the adults in the orphanage and do what they said, even though all of the adults involved continued to let them down. The amount of strength they showed, particularly Rill, was incredible. Avery’s storyline in the present was just as compelling, in a different way. She was so busy with everything going on in her life, and finally slowed down to investigate her family’s past. She managed to make time for that, showing that we all have time for things we think are important. (And how telling it is what we choose to make time for.)
Before We Were Yours is an amazing book. So well written, so well researched, and so important. Before this book, I was unaware of this part of American history, and I can’t believe I didn’t know the story. This storyline is sad and heartbreaking, but also interesting from a historical standpoint, and the ending is uplifting. The alternating chapters do a nice job of breaking up the sadness of the past story, and it will make you want to read more about Georgia Tann. (She was really unbelievable.) Let me know if you’ve read this book and what you thought!!