Lisa Wingate's Before We Were Yours was the 2017 winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction, and I figured I should check it out if not for that reason alone. Also, the premise is incredibly interesting and hard to ignore. In the present day, there is an epidemic of children being taken and traded, and it turns out this is far from a new thing as this is the very subject the book tackles, but in the setting of the late 1930s.
The Situation: Avery Stafford was born into wealth and privilege. And although she already has a successful career as a lawyer, she is also being groomed to eventually take her father's place in the Senate, should his recent health scare cause him to no longer be able to serve. Her future is more or less laid out for her, and all she has to do is stay by her father's side, go to the right events, take the right pictures, and finally set a date for her wedding. It is at a photo opportunity at a local nursing home that Avery meets May Crandall. At first glance, May is simply a cantankerous old woman whose family thought it best she be placed in a nursing home. But it is obvious that May recognizes something in Avery, and when the youngest Stafford must go back to the nursing home to retrieve a lost bracelet, she learns just enough to make all of the public appearances and wedding planning take a back seat to an interesting new investigation.
The Problem: It was 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee when 12 year-old Rill Foss's life turned upside down. After her parents leave for the hospital when it is time for her mother to give birth to twins, strangers find their riverboat and take the five Foss children - Rill, her three sisters, and her baby brother - to the Tennessee Children's Home Society orphanage. The children are told they will be returned to their parents, but Rill soon realizes this is not going to be the case, and that the orphanage intends to adopt them out to people who can pay a substantial amount for them. What Avery is able to learn in present-day South Carolina will bring Rill's story more than 70 years into the future, and have her questioning everything she knew about her family, her life, and what she thought she wanted.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in both 1939 Memphis and present-day South Carolina. Avery tells her story as the third daughter of a senator who knows too well that appearances are everything and any family secret is potential ammunition for the opponent. Rill tells her story as the oldest daughter of Briny and Queenie, two river gypsies in Tennessee who were raising their children aboard the Arcadia on the Mississippi River before they were taken. The Tennessee Children's Home Society was a real place, as was Georgia Tann, the woman who ran the place and was responsible for what happened there. Many today regard her as one of history's worst serial-killers, as it is estimated that hundreds of children died under her care. It is difficult to say for sure, as children's names were changed before they were adopted out, and all records and files were kept sealed, making it difficult for grieving birth parents to find the truth. Rill's story is full of abuse, despair, struggle, and loss. Avery may live a charmed life, but her concern for her ailing grandmother is what motivates her to look into the older woman's past, even if she is somewhat afraid of what she may find. If there is an old hidden family secret, she would rather find out about it before someone else does.
My Verdict: I get why this book was ultimately named the winner for the historical fiction category in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Rill's story is masterfully brought together with Avery's, when on the surface, the two could not be more different from one another, but that is kind of the point. Two very different people, from two very different eras, turn out to be connected in a way they could not have been imagined. And perhaps what fascinated me most is the idea that if the terrible things of the past didn't happen, then we would not be the people we are today. Rill's story is heartbreaking in a way that keeps us reading, and Avery is privileged and driven in a way that the reader doesn't hate her. Both can be difficult things to pull off, but Wingate does it, while also telling a story that is at once fascinating and tragic, while still being hopeful. If there was one issue, it was that the ending felt rushed as the two stories came together.
Favorite Moment: When a woman from Rill's past turns out to be a key player in bringing the truth to Avery.
Favorite Character: Avery can be annoying in her naiveté, but ultimately she wants the truth for her grandmother and for her family, even if it would be best for the family image if that information stays hidden.
Recommended Reading: I recommend The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It is the true story of the women who worked with radium as dial painters and suffered the consequences of being in such close proximity to the dangerous element for prolonged periods of time.