- What: The Book of Lost Friends
- Who: Lisa Wingate
- Pages: 376, hard cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2020
- The lit: of 5 flames
I keep an ongoing to-do list on my phone. Every time I finish a book, I add the future review to that list. Every time I think of an “Extra Extra” idea, I add it as well. For the last six months, the top of that list has read “Why I Don’t Have One-Flame Reviews.”
It’s not that every book I read is five-flame fabulous or that I go too easy on books. On the contrary, I tend to round down if I initially want to give a book half of a flame. Earlier this year, I realized that the reason I don’t have any one-flame reviews is because I likely wouldn’t even finish a book if I felt that harshly toward it.
Well, that all changed when I picked up a book that’s received quite a bit of attention in 2020 and that was written by an author whose previous work I thoroughly enjoyed. Before reading The Book of Lost Friends, I knew that — in addition to liking the author — this novel fell into the historical fiction realm, took place after a war, and had powerful themes about literature. All things considered, it was certainly poised to be a top contender for my annual “Ranked” list.
Not long after I started it, though, I heard that familiar echo of the white savior and the tone-deaf decision for a white woman to write from a Black person’s perspective, and it irked me in every single way. To a lesser degree, I also was bothered by incongruent storylines, stereotypes, unfulfilling foreshadowing, and an overabundance of detail. I guess there’s a first for everything.
Louisiana in 1875 is struggling through the tumultuous years of Reconstruction. Hannie still works on the plantation where she was formerly enslaved but with the hope that she’ll eventually own the plot of land to which she tends. She possesses a greater desire, though, to find her mother and eight siblings from whom she was separated before slavery ended.
This desire drives her to follow her former master’s daughter, Lavinia, and Lavinia’s half-sister, Juneau Jane, to Texas on a dangerous adventure. Along the way, she comes across the real-life “Lost Friends” newspaper column, which details family and friends who have long been separated by the cruelty of slavery. Hannie’s discovery only intensifies her desire to find her family.
Fast forward more than 100 years later, and Benny Silva has just moved to the same Louisiana town to start her career as a teacher. Augustine, La., though, has long suffered from slavery’s and Reconstruction’s effects, which have impoverished the town and kept it divided. A few terrible weeks into a hopeless job, she comes across a library of books and an encyclopedia of history that could finally connect her with her students. While uncovering the secrets of the land upon which she lives and the people with whom she interacts every day, she must come to terms with her own secrets and decide if she can open up about them.
Let’s start there: Benny’s secrets and former life. Throughout this novel, author Lisa Wingate alludes to something in Benny’s past that continues to haunt her and makes her put up walls with everyone she meets. These secrets also cause problems in a former relationship that seemed problematic all on its own.
The foreshadowing and bread crumbs provide few hints to this big secret despite frequent mentions, and you don’t even close to figuring it out. Then, finally — FINALLY — in the epilogue, Wingate lets us know what happened in Benny’s past. It was definitely a letdown. Not because it wasn’t interesting; I’d actually have preferred that to be the story I read than the other problematic ones. Instead, it was so far out of left field and had no connection to the plot or narrative. I distinctly remember closing my Kindle, scrunching my face, and thinking “Really? Did I read that correctly?” This plot point wasn’t needed, and it unnecessarily distracted from the main storyline.
This weird turn of events says something greater about the book’s writing quality in general. The more action-oriented scenes are confusing and lackluster, which are confounded by having too much detail. Usually more detail helps move a narrative and provides more intrigue, but in this case, it just lost me.
Also, dare I say the story is just … boring?
I do dare, and it is boring. I struggled to get through this book and really just wanted to get to the end. I thought many times about quitting it, but I knew I had to finish it so that I could say something greater about why this novel fell way short.
A far greater issue than having a boring narrative and confusing plot points is that this book perpetuates the white savior stereotype. Additionally, Wingate, a white woman, not only tells the stories of Black people and slaves, but she does so in the first person as if she were these characters. These are incredibly problematic and tone-deaf decisions.
Take the white savior theme. In the Benny scenes, she is clearly a white woman coming into a town with a significant Black population and that has suffered from slavery and segregation, and she’s coming in to save the day. She’s the teacher that changes everything for these less-fortunate kids, sets them on the right path, and teaches them about their own history. (Here’s a great article about the white savior complex in Hollywood; it’s worth the read.)
To top it off, writing about a Black person’s experience from their perspective depletes their agency to tell their own stories. Not to mention that the language with which the Black characters speak definitely perpetuates unhealthy and disrespectful stereotypes. Wingate does write an afterword about researching the speech and thinking of the times, but it still comes off as cliché. Lastly, Hannie tends to feel sympathetic toward her former slave masters and even a deep respect and fondness for them as if they weren’t “that bad” (very similar to the George Washington conversation we’re currently having).
I can usually sympathize with a bad book if it has something important to say, and Wingate definitely found an interesting story when she came across the “Lost Friends” column. Even if the writing had been better and the narrative more intriguing, however, the book still would have been overshadowed by Wingate’s racial miscues. Just because a piece of history provides an inspirational and important story doesn’t mean a white person has to retell it. Our country has had enough whitewashing of history by now.