Book reviewed by Bev Scott
Child abuse is a difficult topic for a book. Lisa Wingate states that she formed the book “from the dust of imagination and the muddy waters of the Mississippi.” She writes about experiences similar to those of real children taken from their families during the 1920’s through the 1950’s. Sadly, Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society had victimized them. The Home took countless children from loving families without cause or permission. Then, the children were never returned to their biological families. Yes, some children lived unwanted, in dire situations. Subsequently families all over the country would adopt these children. But many children were just snatched off their porches, kidnapped in broad daylight or removed from families using lies and deception.
Once under their control, the Home deprived the children of food or proper medical care. They were beaten, tied to beds and chairs and locked in dark closets. Somehow, undesirable or problem children might “disappear.” The Home sometimes blackmailed adoptive families, demanding more money. Paperwork vanished leaving no record of the children’s prior lives. The real Georgia Tann brutalized these children, supported by the family court system, police and other corrupt officials. Tragically, she proved herself to be a greedy, manipulative, and unscrupulous woman.
In alternate chapters, Wingate tells two stories which ultimately come together at the end of the book. Avery Stafford is one of the daughters of Senator Stafford from Aiken, South Carolina. She practices law in Washington, D.C. and is engaged to her childhood sweetheart. Avery is being groomed to take over her father’s Senate seat. At one of her father’s events staged at a nursing home, a new resident, May, confronts Avery.
With memory triggered, May’s thinks she could be connected to Avery who looks like May’s grandmother. So May claims the dragonfly bracelet from Avery’s arm and appears to have known Avery’s grandmother. Intrigued by mysterious May, Avery begins to investigate the potential relationship with her grandmother. Ever political, Avery fears an underlying scandal that would damage the Stafford family reputation.
Next, we learn of five siblings Rill, Camellia, Lark, Fern and Gabion who live on a shantyboat on the river. Their parents Briny and Queenie are loving but unconventional. One day, the children must stay alone when Briny takes Queenie to the hospital for medical care for a difficult delivery of twins. This gives the police a reason to “kidnap” the children from the boat. Fate delivers them to the house of horrors managed by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Child abuse ensues.
After weeks of uncertainty and fear, they discover the brutal truth of their situation. Briny will never return to bring them home. Then Camellia disappears, perhaps dying from injuries suffered from a beating. To cover up, the Home staff tell Rill, the oldest at twelve, that Camellia never even existed. They lie in saying that there were “only four of you to begin with.” Eventually, Lark and Gabion are the first to be adopted out, followed by Fern and Rill.
Wingate describes the horrors that the children suffer, in gripping fashion. Avery searches for clues to solve the mysterious connection between her grandmother and the enigmatic May. Both situations are compelling. The author alternates chapters to develop the characters. Plus, the author has crafted plots that work well. Avery’s character seems a bit shallow in contrast to the depth of the shanty boat children. Perhaps it parallels the rationale for her search. After all, the reputation of the Stafford family seems shallow as well. I couldn’t help believing that Avery had some additional personal motivations.
Thus, I recommend Before We Were Yours. For several days, I shuddered thinking about the horrors inflicted upon the fictional, as well as the real children. Fortunately, for some children, there were “happy endings.” However, child abuse remains a terrible reality for many.