Critical Family History Book Review: Before we were Yours

Wingate, Before we were Yours

Wingate, Before we were Yours

Adoption presents challenges to family historians. Perhaps the greatest challenge is figuring out how important it is to trace biological ancestors, especially if they have had little or no role in actually raising a person. Lisa Wingate, in Before we were Yours (Ballantine, 2017), grapples with this question, although her purpose is mainly to critique unethical adoption practices.

The storyline follows two main characters. Avery Stafford is a young lawyer from South Carolina who, in 2015, had been living in New York but returned home to help care for her ailing father, a prominent Senator. Avery is also being groomed to run for his seat in the near future, although she has mixed feelings about this possible future. Rill Foss is a young adolescent who, during the 1930s, had been living with the family she adored on the Mississippi River in a boat large enough to hold a shanty, and who (along with her four siblings) was kidnapped and taken to an orphanage while her parents were in the hospital attempting to deliver a baby. These two characters connect when Avery bumps into an elderly woman named May Crandall at an elder facility, who initially believes Avery is someone named Fern.

Wingate was inspired to write this novel after learning about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and particularly its Memphis branch operator Georgia Tann. Under Tann’s direction, the organization kidnapped thousands of children to sell for adoption on the black market, mainly to prominent, wealthy families. While waiting to be adopted, the children were badly mistreated; many were sexually abused. In Before we were Yours, readers accompany Rill and her siblings as they are yanked from life with a family who lacked money but not love, and placed in a facility that renamed children in order to hide them from their parents and treated them as commodities. As Wingate put it, they were “five little river gypsies who suffered at the hands of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society” and who “deserve to have their stories carried forward into the future.”

Toward the end of the novel, Wingate asks briefly what their lives would have been had they not been kidnapped. Four of the siblings were adopted into upper class families, where they were afforded opportunities they would not have had otherwise. (One of the siblings disappeared.) She does not answer this question, although readers are left with the sense that the Foss children and others like them would still have lived worthwhile, meaningful lives.

Both explicitly and implicitly, the novel asks who we are. Rill Foss goes through life with two identities reflected in two different names: one pre-adoption and the other post-adoption. When she was kidnapped, she was old enough to remember her Foss identity and her life as a member of a river family. Other siblings, kidnapped at younger ages, remember far less. A four-year-old begins to forget her birth family while she and Rill are together, and an even younger sibling never knew her birth family.

Yet, in the novel, four biological sisters find each other as adults, and form bonds at least as strong as those they have with loved ones in their present-day lives, bonds symbolized by shared hair texture and facial coloring. Wingate suggests that biological origins are at least as significant in determining who we are as are lived relationships. For anyone grappling with adoption and family history, Before we were Yours, a page-turner to read, provides questions to ponder.

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