Now this is historical fiction! Before We Were Yours is a story crafted around a real criminal ringleader and her malicious business of kidnapping children from poor families in Tennessee and beyond and “adopting” them out to wealthy clients. Georgia Tann, the mastermind, never faced criminal charges, dying of cancer before she faced justice. Even more tragic, papers were only released to the public in the 1990s, long after the children were kidnapped illegally from their families during the Great Depression. Wingate does an incredible job of illuminating a period of American history most people have no idea existed, creating the world of Rill Foss and her siblings Camelia, Fern, Lark and baby Gabeon as Rill tries to keep them together in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Wingate employs a literary style where she alternates between the stories of the Foss siblings, told from eldest sister Rill’s perspective and the voice of young woman Avery Stafford, from the present day as she pieces together a dark family history. The Foss siblings were born to Queenie and Briny, living their lives on a shanty boat floating down the Mississippi River during the 1930s. Like many other poor families, river people went were the current carried them, docking on the shores for rest in cases of emergency. After Briny rushes Queenie to the hospital as she begins labor, the children are left for the night, expecting their parents to return to the boat once the baby is born. Hours turn into days and soon policemen converge onto the boat, forcibly taking all five children Georgia Tann. One by one they are separated, but not before enduring suffering at the hands of Tann and the other “caregivers” as they are cruelly disciplined. Meanwhile, Avery, the daughter of prominent senator, stumbles across a number of concerning clues about her grandmother’s past. Concerned there’s a possible scandal that could ruin her father’s political career and family name, she pursues leads relentlessly, trying to find out behind the backs of her family members and ailing grandmother what dealings the family had with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Wingate does a great job going back and forth from Rill’s to Avery’s stories, converging their lives at the end of the novel with great emotion.
While the ending confused me a bit (as it seems to have confused other readers), the rest of the narrative is craftily executed. My only regret is that I didn’t pick up this book sooner. The unassuming cover art didn’t compel me to prioritize this book but I guess the saying’s true: don’t judge a book by it’s… (uninteresting looking) cover.