Georgia Tann and her Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society are another one of those dark spots in our country's history. From the 1920's until 1950, Miss Tann's endeavors were seen as the pinnacle of caring and compassionate orphan care. What was really happening is beyond comprehension. Destitute women, still under sedation from giving birth, were tricked into signing away their children. Whole families of siblings were virtually kidnapped because their parents were poor and powerless. Lies were told to adoptive families, abuse abounded within the homes that housed the "orphans," nonthriving babies were allowed to die without care. The cutest kids, the ones with curly blonde hair and blue eyes (think Shirley Temple look-alikes) were sent to powerful political and Hollywood families at a premium price. When Tann's dark secrets were finally revealed, no formal charges were pursued. She was only days from a cancer death, and her secrets meant that others who conspired with her (hospitals, police, and politicians) and wealthy clients who simply did not ask questions would also be revealed. I hope that someone writes a nonfiction expose about Tann and her wicked world (I don't think anyone has yet), but until then I strongly recommend Lisa Wingate's sensitive fictional novel telling how Rill and her river rat siblings are kidnapped while their parents are absent from the houseboat they call home. The oldest, Rill, remains determined to flee the "home" they are taken to, but she knows she must stay close to the little ones and protect them the best she can. Soon she realizes that lies and abuse are rampant at the Tann home, and that she cannot believe anything she is told about her parents.
Rill's story is alternately told alternately with a contemporary story about Avery, a prominent lawyer who is being groomed to someday take her father's seat in the Senate. During a press opportunity at a nursing home, Avery captures the attention of an elderly woman, May, who mistakes Avery for the woman's sister Fern. Not content to brush off the woman's distress, Avery visits her again, and that visit begins a quest to learn more about her own grandmother, a woman now locked away in the dementia's cruel prison.
BEFORE WE WERE YOURS is a powerful stories of forgotten pasts, fabricated lives, chosen paths, secrets held, and family ties that will not die. Be prepared to be drawn into this book; once I started I did not want to quit reading. Last night, with 150 pages left, I put aside all thoughts of sleep until I knew what happened to Rill and why May felt a connection to Avery. Wingate is a masterful storyteller; she creates a perfect 12 year old Rill, old enough to be apprehensive of what is happening around her, but still childlike enough to have limited understanding of the greed and evil that has taken over her life. Wingate then chooses to make modern tale story quiet, while revealing. There is plenty of tension and suspense in the secret story that Avery discovers; I like that Wingate chooses to have this discovery happen in a quiet, steady way -- no car chases, clandestine meetings, or suspicious people following her every move -- just a determined woman's to find some answers. I received an ARC copy from Netgalley. All opinions are mine.