The first book of 2020 was one chosen by the office book club. Based on the book summary, I would have thought that Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate, would be written differently than it was. I anticipated following along the story as it happened, the events unfolding as they would have in real life. Because this book is, of course, based on real life.
But I was thrown a bit when it read more like a mystery novel. Flashing back from present day to the 1930’s, we swapped points of view between Avery, who is uncovering the mystery of her grandmother’s past bit by bit and Rill, who is living an unimaginable life.
To find out the truth of the past, Avery’s telling of the story is maddeningly slow in the most riveting way. Avery is caught up in her family’s politics, being groomed for a Senate seat while at the same time planning a wedding with her fiance. A chance encounter with a woman at a nursing home during a public appearance has her off on a wild goose chase to connect the dots between this stranger and her grandmother, who happen to have similar photographs in their rooms of the same people.
You realize that Avery is on the brink of discovery, but hits a snag as she encounters a stubborn realtor who has sworn to keep her family’s secret – and yet, she finds herself falling in love with him.
Meanwhile, the reader is transported back a few generations to follow the story of a family on a river.
Be warned: I’m going to give away some spoilers in this review. If you want to read this book and don’t want the ending ruined, I suggest you stop now.
Rill’s family is close-knit and happy and hardworking, though poor. Their mother, Queenie, is expecting twins in addition to the five children they already have. When Queenie and her husband, Briny, leave the boat to find a hospital to deliver the babies, 12-year-old Rill and her siblings are left to fend for themselves.
They would have been fine, except they get snatched away by workers from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, who are essentially stealing children and selling them rich families who want to adopt. They are mistreated and physically and emotionally abused while they are in the care of the home. Some of the less desirable children simply disappear, which means they are likely killed in some way.
Crazy enough, this actually happened in real life. And the owner of the TCHS got away with it for decades and died before she could face retribution.
The whole time we’re reading this story, we know there is some kind of connection between Avery and Rill, but we can’t figure out what that connection is. There is no one in Avery’s life named Rill Foss.
Eventually, we realize that Rill Foss is May Weathers – the random stranger at the nursing home. And my first observation was that Rill Foss seemed to be the only one of her family who completely shed her old identity and goes by her new name, May Weathers, into old age. As we learn about her siblings, they are still referred to as Fern, Lark, Camellia and Gabion, despite having been adopted (or disappeared in Camellia’s case). Why would that be? Fern was only four years old when she was adopted with Rill. She fit into her new family and accepted her new parents, who called her Beth, so easily. And yet she is known as Fern later. Rill leaves her old name on the river. Maybe they told the Seviers their real names when they came back from their runaway adventure and told them the rest of the story. Maybe Fern didn’t go by Beth all those years, but Rill asked to keep the name May. Maybe May just continues to refer to Fern as Fern in family settings, even if she goes by Beth other places. I guess we’ll never know.
My second observation was that we get a lot of insight into Rill’s thoughts about what is happening to her and how she justifies it. She is trying to convince herself that they’ll go back to their parents; trying to be strong and brave for her siblings, even though she seems to realize what’s really going on. But she’s 12, why doesn’t she speak up? She’s old enough to question authority, stand up to adults, and tell the truth. She could tell the people at the parties that Miss Tann is lying. She could speak up about the atrocities. But she’s afraid. And for good reason. The one time she thinks she trusts a worker with the truth, the worker gets fired and Rill gets locked away. Of course she would develop trust issues and not speak up to the Seviers about the truth. She’s afraid they’ll send her back or she won’t be believed. It’s actually astounding that she wasn’t somehow damaged for life because of this ordeal.
As for Judy, Avery’s grandmother, why keep her past a secret from her family all these years? Judy is one of the twins – she never lived on the river or with the Foss family, she never knew her biological parents, she probably thought she didn’t have anything to hide her whole life. If she found out about her real family and the truth of her siblings and what had happened to them, it’s not like anything was her fault. Could it really have affected her affluent and influential family and their Senate prospects? It wasn’t a scandal she necessarily participated in, her situation was a by-product of a terrible history, but it wasn’t her fault. At the very least, could she not have revealed that she was adopted? Lots of people are adopted and don’t know their real parents. But maybe she didn’t even know she was adopted until she was old and May found her. And by then, why rock the boat?
After May and Fern return to the Seviers, they tell them everything that happened. And the Seviers believe them. So why don’t May and Fern just live their truth? They say they kept it secret later after they found Lark and Judy because they didn’t want to bother their families, but May and Fern’s families would have been more intertwined. They could have known. They had no reason to keep the secret.
The last thing that is most unbelievable, in the fictional characters’ story as well as in real life, is that no one helped them. People on the river watched their friends and friends’ children get taken, people knew where they were, workers within watched the abuse happen and said nothing. They couldn’t – they were all poor. Money was, and is, power. People don’t believe them. Money can silence people who speak against you, destroy your life and your family. They were all afraid. And the rich people would have been afraid to speak up because they wanted the children. They didn’t want to be implicated in a crime. They had the reputation that comes with money to maintain. Everyone was either bullied or blackmailed into keeping the whole thing mum. For decades.
This book was a page-turner, so captivating, so real. I felt all of the inner turmoil that Rill was going through as she struggled to keep her family together, survive, stay hopeful despite everything that was happening to them. These fictional characters set against real, historical events, were so believable, it made the book impossible to put down.