Lisa Wingate has a special way of inviting you into historical fiction that fascinates the reader from the first page to the last. Her newest book, The Book of Lost Friends, is no exception as she opens our awareness to life ten years after the end of the Civil War in Louisiana (1875) through what is discovered by a teacher quite by accident in the small town of Augustine, Louisiana in 1987. Wingate tells a captivating tale with a centerpiece of history not widely known by most of us.
Benedetta Silva (known as Benny) is a first-year teacher who arrives in the small rural town of Augustine for a subsidized job she hopes will pay off her student loans. Even her graduate studies in English have not prepared her for her role as an English teacher in this town. It takes no time at all to discover how suspicious everyone is about this newcomer and how unhelpful they can be in helping her find housing, The home she is finally able to rent is a shabby small home built on a corner of a run-down plantation of old next to a cemetery. Finding help for the leaking roof or much of anything proves challenging before she even meets her students.
The students in her classroom are far off the usual students for Benny. They are rowdy and largely uneducated in the basic subjects of reading and math. The curriculum is not suited to their learning level and yet the board of education made up of the town upper-class elite expect her to teach these students everyone has given up on. She soon learns no teacher has lasted long in this position and the principal is of little help in giving her wise direction.
Even with all this, Benny is determined to help these students everyone else has written off despite prejudices of all kinds that she bumps into at every turn whether in school or the town even though it is 1987. Her own family history is one she has sought to set aside as a result of her broken family and a history shrouded by supposed involvement with Mussolini in Italy during WW II.
When she walks the cemetery next to her house and begins exploring beyond the hedges onto the property of the plantation her interest is piqued. The local restaurant is where she meets a lively character named Granny T who begins to reveal more about her students and introduces her to a woman named Sarge who can fix her roof when Benny cannot get a return call from the owners of the home.
Little by little she discovers more about the life in the area in the post-Civil War years full of chaos and uncertainty for the wealthy, the poor, the slaves now freed, and those who would want to keep them in tow and hide the stories of their abuse and the mixture of the plantation owners and their offspring of both white, black, and mixed racial heritage. Many of her students have these persons as their ancestors but know little of the heritage that holds them in the lowly status they live.
Discovery of how former slaves began to search for their family members who had been sold off at various times and places gives Benny a hope of how she can captivate her students and get them involved in education through research to uncover the history of the area including those buried in hidden graves beyond the town cemetery next to where she is living.
In the process Benny discovers the advertisements the former slaves posted in various places and ultimately compiled and published in the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper. The ads looking for lost family members published there are read in churches across the country and shared from one person to another. This discovery by Benny turns out to be the key to unlocking her students’ attention and get them involved in their stories and things they can be proud of as well as grieve.
This part of Lisa Wingate’s story set in 1875 features one of these searchers she creates, Hannie Gossett, who was a slave on the plantation where Benny now lives. The story Hannie tells opens the readers’ eyes to the tragic heartbreak of those whose lives were shattered by slavey and separation from family members. It also looks at how these very tragedies open the door to learning, reading, research, and more in Benny’s 1987 classroom even though the elite of the town want to keep the truth buried.
This book is captivating and powerful in the parallel stories with Lisa Wingate’s skill at bringing all the intersections of the two periods together. It is well worth the read as Wingate weaves factual historical data with her fictional characters and storyline.