Stories sometimes remind us that more often than we think, things are not always what they seem. That truism is what comes to life in Lisa Wingate’s newest best-selling book, Before We Were Yours.
As Lisa writes early in the book:
“Life can turn on a dime…We plan our days, but we don’t control them.”
The gripping story she tells introduces us to a seemingly well-bred and connected family of the South. Filled with traditions of southern society and their political life, the story begins with the Stafford family caught up in the midst of a political campaign for the U.S. Senate while also navigating the mental decline of the candidate’s aging mother. The Senator’s favorite daughter, Avery (a successful Baltimore attorney) has returned home to help with the campaign since her father’s bout with cancer has weakened him.
Avery’s trip home pulls her into the family traditions she left behind after law school. Those include hopes for her own political future and moving forward to marry a childhood friend, but as Lisa writes, “We plan our days, but we don’t control them.”
Another story unfolds and runs parallel that is quite different than that of the prestigious Stafford family. It tells of the poor people in the Memphis, Tennessee shanty towns along the Mississippi River whose children were routinely taken from them through a variety of deceitful ways.
These children were treated as chattel as a part of the true story of Georgia Tann and her Tennessee Children’s Home Society that remained a secret from the 1920’s to 1950. The secret of Georgia Tann was that babies and children were treated as commodities or objects. As such she became wealthy to the staggering amount of what would be ten million dollars today currying favor with judges and politicians allowing her to continue her schemes for decades.
Under her reign of terror, abuse, and neglect, many of the children she had stolen from their families didn’t live to tell their stories. Their records were sealed as she duped poor uneducated families into signing over custody to her so she could “sell” these children to the highest bidders. Some children were grabbed on their way to school or walking along a roadside or dangling their feet in the river. The parents who chose them didn’t know the truth of how they became wards of Georgia Tann.
Some estimates suggest as many as 500 children simply banished under her greedy structure while thousands more disappeared in adoption for profit in ways that never allowed the birth families or the adopted children or their families to discover the truth.
It would not be until 1995 that the records would be unsealed to reveal the true stories of these children. It would be too late for many of them, but the stories some were able and willing to share allowed Lisa to create a story not unlike those they lived.
In Before We Were Yours these two stories intersect when Avery bumps into a woman at a nursing home who is certain that Avery is someone named Fern. Avery’s investigative legal experience nudges her to try to sort out who this woman is after the woman takes a bracelet from Avery. The bracelet was a gift to Avery from her grandmother, but the woman insists the bracelet is hers.
In the process of unraveling what connection this woman might have to Avery’s beloved grandmother, Avery discovers more of her own personhood that may not lay on the path her parents have in mind. She also recognizes the power of love that goes beyond status or heritage.
This unexpected encounter with the woman in the nursing home later gives Avery a glimpse of something she could not have expected:
“A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.”
This latest offering by Lisa Wingate seems to be her finest work and I say that as one who has been captivated by her other books in recent months. Page-by-page my heart was captured by the story she writes, of two stories that connect in ways that may surprise you.
If you have not read this one yet, put it on your list to read next.