Books and reading,  History

Uncovering scandal and abuse: ‘Before We Were Yours’ by Lisa Wingate

In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It’s merely a terrible by-product of surviving.

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Lisa Wingate’s dual timeline novel explores the hurt that is done by some to others in their efforts to survive – emotionally, physically, materially.

We meet Rill Foss, who in the 1930’s is kidnapped along with her four siblings and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis. The home is one of many run by Georgia Tann, a real-life figure whose questionable activities were later uncovered and condemned.

In the current day, there is Avery Stafford, a young lawyer and a member of a powerful South Carolina political family. When Avery meets May Crandall, an elderly resident of a nursing home, the encounter starts her on a quest to unravel the mysterious connection between May and Avery’s own grandmother, Judy.

Rill’s storyline introduces us to her life before she is whisked away. She lives with her large, noisy family in a ‘shantyboat’ on the Mississippi River. Folk like her were known disparagingly as ‘river rats’ and ‘river gypsies’ – they are itinerant and poor. They don’t always have enough to eat and there are plenty of dangers on the river. But Rill’s family is loving, with music and books, and friends they meet up with on their seasonal travels up and down the river.

The author has captured Rill’s voice perfectly and brought her river home to vivid life. But when Rill and her brother and sisters are sent to the children’s home, they are treated as if they are stock, items sold to couples desperate to adopt a child. There are sickening acts of cruelty and indifference towards children’s needs, and a wilful blindness by staff to the abuses perpetrated against their charges.

It’s a sobering reminder, if one were needed, that there are people who will exploit the vulnerable and that, without proper oversight and regulation, abuses will occur, especially if money is involved. We may think that these sorts of situations could not arise today, but we would be mistaken.

As Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past continues and deepens, she learns about the scandals surrounding the ‘baby farms’ run by Georgia Tann. As she searches for the truth, her own future (which had once seemed a charmed pathway to a life of privilege) becomes less clear to her. In her uncertainty about her family’s past, she reaches for a different, more authentic future.

No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn’t suit the moment.

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Before We Were Yours takes the reader on a journey of discovery to difficult truths, and explores the different ways people deal with tragedy. The characters and the setting in America’s South are wonderfully realised and there are moments of tenderness and hope that lead to a satisfying resolution. I enjoyed this novel and will be on the lookout for more titles by Lisa Wingate.

Before We Were Yours is published by Harper Collins Australia in December 2020.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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