Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Wingate based her novel on Georgia Tann (1891-1955) who, as director of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, amassed a fortune—ten million dollars in today’s currency—trafficking children from the 1920s-1950s. As the public revered Tann for transforming adoption into a respectable process, she obtained thousands of children through stealth, cunning, and violence. She succeeded because corrupt officials protected and aided Tann on state, judicial, and local levels.
In alternating chapters, Wingate complements the theme of child abuse in the Depression Era with twenty-first century elder abuse.
Rill, Camilla, Lark, Fern, and Gabion Foss live on the Arcadia, a Mississippi River shanty boat, with their parents Queenie and Briny. Though Briny earns a meager living, they bestow invaluable literary gifts on their children. Briny, during the school months, moors the Arcadia so Rill and Camilla can attend classes. Both parents read to their children, encourage them to read, and Briny spins stories “. . . about knights and castles, and Indians out west, and far-off places.”
One night, fearing that Queenie will die in childbirth, he rushes her to a hospital across the river. Rill solemnly promises Briny that she will protect her siblings. The next morning, Memphis policemen brutally kidnap the children—They pull Camilla from the river by her hair and slam her to the floor of the boat “with her arms pinned behind her”—and deliver them to Georgia Tann in Memphis. Tann imprisons the children in a “holding house” supervised by Mrs. Murphy, a vicious drunk.
For Avery Stafford, protagonist of the elder-abuse storyline and the daughter of United States Senator Wells Stafford, politics is her life. As the older, single, and “brainiac” daughter, she always expected to be summoned home to Aiken, South Carolina, for the political grooming necessary to replace her father, just not so soon.
Her father’s cancer diagnosis terminates Avery’s career as a prosecutor in the United States Attorney General’s Office, but “Stafford women do what must be done, even when they don’t want to.” From a woman very much her own person, Avery is reduced to a political commodity who thinks, speaks, and dresses as commanded by Honeybee, her mother, and Leslie, her father’s “uber-efficient press secretary.”
Countering a political rival implicating him in a nursing-home scandal, Leslie arranges for Senator Stafford and Avery to attend the hundredth birthday party of a nursing-home resident. The event runs according to Leslie’s schedule until May Crandall, a fragile-looking woman, clenches Avery’s arm and must be pried off by an attendant. She babbles about Avery’s identity like a demented woman.
When Avery returns to retrieve the bracelet that May stole from her arm, May claims that she played bridge with Judy Stafford, Avery’s beloved grandmother. Intrigued as a lawyer and concerned about an abandoned elderly woman, Avery investigates her background.
By presenting both storylines in the first person, Wingate grants her readers a greater sense of place and conflict, especially concerning the Foss children. In a “Note From the Author,” she writes “Though Rill and her siblings exist only in these pages, their experiences mirror those reported by children who were taken from their families . . .”
The children are fed two meager meals daily of corn meal mush, forced to stand naked in line nightly to bathe in communal water, and sleep on grungy sheets. Careful to never leave an obvious bruise or bump, the employees, especially Mrs. Pulnick, beat, punch, berate, slap, and kick the children at will. The Foss children sleep in a tiny basement room furnished with five filthy cots and a slop jar.
At age twelve, Rill is as loyal, intelligent, and perceptive, as literary heroines many times her age. Convinced that Briny will soon rescue them, she staunchly protects her siblings. The details that Rill reports enhance her character and the reader’s insight.
The other children, she observes, watch with “curious eyes, worried eyes, sad eyes, mean eyes, eyes that’re dead and hard.”
On a playground of bare dirt and broken toys, Rill listens “to the leaves talking and the birds singing their morning songs.” In their grimy basement room, the tiny pink rose brushing against the window offers hope. And she casts everything in a literary light.
The wall of cedar trees hiding the front yard reminds her of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Twice Rill wishes that she were the Invisible Man; first, when forced to sit for hours on the floor outside Mrs. Murphy’s office, and again when Riggs, the pedophilic janitor, stalks her at night. Returning from the bookmobile with “Huckleberry Finn,” Rill rejoices, “Even though I have to head back to Mrs. Murphy’s house . . . . Now it’s got a river in it.”
Like most literary heroines, Rill is not invincible and as Camilla, Lark, and Gabion, for various reasons, disappear, despair sets in. Rill’s nadir and the book’s most brutal scene follows her long weeks of isolation in the basement room. Though starved, dehydrated, and filthy, Rill endures further physical and mental torment inflicted by Mrs. Tann, Mrs. Murphy, and Mrs. Pulnick until learning that Fern is gone. Not only has she failed Briny, but Rill has lost the sister dearest to her heart.
Wingate so graphically portrays Rill’s story that Avery’s chapters bring relief. Not that she’s having an easy time of discovering May’s background or subduing her inner-attorney.
Her Grandmother Judy recalls no May Crandall and, according to her appointment calendars, has led a double life unworthy of the Stafford matriarch and Aiken society doyen. Avery’s visits to May bring slippers and a hair brush flying out the door and evermore confusion about her connection to Judy Stafford.
Though well aware that she will be an outcast if she raises even a hint of social scandal or blemishes her father’s political reputation, Avery, at the very least, will return May Crandall from the status of castoff to respected human being.
Especially remarkable about the story are Wingate’s women who, whether good or evil, portray their characters pitch-perfectly. Honeybee, the Southern social snob, and Leslie, more of a political machine than human, are the sorts of characters that readers love to detest. Tann appears relatively little in the story, yet her evil presence permeates every page. Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Pulnick make Squeers, the savage schoolmaster in Dicken’s “Nicholas Nickleby” seem lovable and jolly. Rill, as heroines do, finds the strength to pursue tenuous but hopeful possibilities. Avery’s financial circumstances may be the polar opposite of Rill’s and the abuse story much less graphic, but a contemporary elder-abuse advocacy group would welcome her with open arms.
Kudos to Wingate for her admirable cast.
BIO: Lisa Wingate is a former journalist, inspirational speaker, and New York Times Bestselling Author of thirty novels. Her work has won or been nominated for many awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, the Oklahoma Book Award, the Utah Library Award, The Carol Award, the Christy Award, and the RT Booklovers Reviewer’s Choice Award. Americans for More Civility, a kindness watchdog organization, selected Lisa along with six others as recipients of the National Civics Award, which celebrates public figures who work to promote greater kindness and civility in American life. Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.” Lisa believes that stories can change the world!