- What: Before We Were Yours
- Who: Lisa Wingate
- Pages: 342 pages, hard cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
One of my first memories with my sister occurred when I was around five years old. I kicked her in the face because I wanted to know what a black eye looked like. Anger had nothing to do with it. I was notoriously the question-asker of the family after all, and my curiosity simply got the best of me.
As you can probably imagine, my parents — and my sister who is four years older — were not very happy with me. I don’t remember what my punishment was, but I insisted it wasn’t personal. Fortunately, Erin hasn’t held a grudge against me, and even though I spent a lot of my youth being jealous of my crazy smart and talented older sister (that’s not why I kicked her!), we’ve become close friends. She inspires me every day.
My close sisterly bond is one reason why I wanted to read Before We Were Yours. This incredibly tragic story about sisters who are separated and try to find their way back to each other is well-written and different from the plot of most novels. And it reminds you of the importance of family, especially of the sister who forgives you for any hurt and harm you may have caused in the past.
“It’s funny how what you’re used to seems like it’s right even if it’s bad.” — Before We Were Yours
Twelve-year-old Rill Foss of Memphis knows the value of family and loyalty. In 1930s Memphis, her family doesn’t have much. They live as river gypsies on a boat settled in the Mississippi River, and all they really have is each other. But that’s the only thing that matters. So when her mother nearly dies during child birth and Rill, her three sisters, and brother are abducted by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, Rill will do whatever it takes to get back to the river with her family in tact. She soon learns, though, that love and loyalty don’t always suffice against cruelty and greed.
Decades later, in the present day, Avery Stafford has just returned to Aiken, S.C. because her congressional father has been diagnosed with cancer. Even though she has a successful career as an attorney in Baltimore and is engaged to her hometown sweetheart, she has a duty to take over her family’s political dynasty if her father takes a turn for the worse. Duty, loyalty, and honor have always been vital to the Staffords, and Avery is expected to step up.
She gets sidetracked though when she meets May Crandall at a nursing home during one of her father’s political engagements. She quickly discovers May isn’t a senile old woman as most would suspect; she’s the key to uncovering the Stafford clan’s decades of dark secrets. May will link the Staffords to the Foss family, which they’ve never known until now. The mystery reinforces to Avery the importance of family — both blood-related and not — and of knowing who you are.
“A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses.” — Before We Were Yours
This story also reinforces how much evil exists in the world. Sadly, this novel is based on a true story, the one of Georgia Tann, who trafficked children through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and made absurd profits from selling them to well-off families from the 1920s to 1950. Through the process, families were separated, and some never knew of or spoke to each other ever again.
I hadn’t heard of this inhumanity before; reading about a first-hand account of it — even if it was fictional — broke my heart. Writing about it couldn’t have been easy, but Lisa Wingate has the goods to do this story justice. Her writing is beautiful and strays from being too emotionally cliché, which can be a challenge in historical fiction. She injects the right amount of and the right variety of emotion without it seeming forced or over the top. She easily crushed my spirits and then lifted them up again in a little more than 300 pages.
Wingate accomplishes this by clearly doing her research, which makes this story so real. Although it seems impossible that so many people could possess such cruelty, her writing and the research that back it up illustrate the fallacy in that assumption.
“Well, that’s one of the paradoxes of life. You can’t have it all. You can have some of this and some of that or all of this and none of that. We make the trade-offs we think are best at the time.” — Before We Were Yours
To really keep things interesting, Wingate provides variance by telling the story from alternating viewpoints: Avery’s and Rill’s. These two live very different lives, so much so that it almost feels like you’re getting two separate stories. Wingate expertly captures the distinct differences between Avery and Rill — between their families, upbringings, and personalities. These contrasts shine through in the alternating chapters. Yet Wingate manages to connect the two stories. It’s a stark reminder that we’re more alike than we are different.
“It is a rarity for an author to create a book with two central stories told side by side and not have one overshadow the other,” wrote Jackie K. Cooper in her 2017 review for Huffington Post. “They take place in two different worlds, but the bond between the two women and the characteristics they both share, evolve naturally as the pages accumulate.”
There are a plethora of reasons why this is one of my favorite books I’ve read in 2019. The first reason: I couldn’t put this book down. Yes, there’s the solid writing. It’s evocative without trying too hard to tell a difficult story. It elicits strong feelings and memories of my own life and makes me grateful for the loving relationship I share with my own sister and family. Meanwhile, it makes me ache for those who have suffered at the hands of greed.
There’s also the plot, which is so different from any others I’ve read in the past few months and even years. It illuminates tragedy in our country while honoring those who were deeply affected by it. And somehow this novel leaves me feeling optimistic because it’s a reminder that we all have roots and we all belong — it might just take time to figure out where that belonging begins.
“But the love of sisters needs no words. It does not depend on memories, or mementos, or proof. It runs as deep as a heartbeat. It is as ever present as a pulse.” — Before We Were Yours
*The title of this review is not only a nod to my own sister but also to my favorite holiday movie, White Christmas, with some classic musical acts that you must see.*