Other than the intellectual meaning of the word orphan, I have no real knowledge of what it means to be an orphan. I’ve never had a friend who was one or spoken to someone who had lived through the experience. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is about the dark side of an orphanage in Memphis, Tennessee. What happened at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society is real and on record. From that base Lisa has crafted a fictional story.
The story starts in the present with Avery Stafford who is back home in South Carolina because her daddy’s cancer prognosis is not good. Of her siblings, all girls, she is the unspoken family torchbearer and ‘son replacement’, the one who would succeed her father. She has arrived at a time when there is a “burgeoning scandal over a series of wrongful death and abuse cases involving corporate-owned eldercare facilities’ in the state. Though her father can afford to put his mother, now in the advanced stages of dementia, into a private care facility, politically it won’t bode well for Senator Stafford.
Avery is very close to her grandmother, Judy, though Judy doesn’t always remember her now. At a press conference in another facility Avery is surprised to meet a woman, May, who looks a lot like her grandmother. Even more shocking for Avery is that May seems to recognize a bracelet given to Avery by Judy. The short first meeting so intrigued Avery that she went back to see May.
We are then taken back in time to May as a twelve year old, when her name was Rill and she and her four younger siblings lived on the Arcadia as shantyboat kids, or as they were often called, ‘river rats’. Queenie, her mother, is trying to give birth to twins but something is wrong and the midwife has told her father, Briny, to get her to a hospital. To do so he has to leave his other children on the boat until his return. However, the days pass and instead of Briny and Queenie returning the police arrive. They forcibly remove all five children and deliver them to the Tennessee Children’s Home. As a commodity they are rare because four of the five children are fair skinned with gorgeous golden blond hair.
This leads to the journey of Rill and her siblings from that day to the present day. In between we follow Avery as she unravels the mystery of May. It is a heartbreaking story when one remembers the facts that this fictional story is woven around, yet author Lisa Wingate weaves a believable story and uses her words to create imagery that works. For instance, Rill says, “I shake my head hard, trying to wick those words out of my ears like water after a swim.” When the young river rats speak in the story, I feel transported. When the Stafford’s speak I go somewhere else entirely. That’s how beautifully I think Lisa has written.
I would recommend this book, and I love the title, it is so fitting. Overall, the story is sad yet there is hope - there has been change in the real world of adoptions and orphanages - and in the story we can see reconciliation for some, though sadly, not all. Here’s the link.