by Grant Cousineau
Imagine being just twelve years old, babysitting your siblings one night, only for the police arrive on your doorstep the next day and sweep you off to an orphanage.
That’s what happens to Rill Foss in 1939. Her mom, Queenie, is pregnant with twins when something goes wrong during labor. The midwife can’t handle it, so Rill’s dad has no choice but to rush Queenie to the hospital, leaving Rill in charge of her four younger siblings. After that, their family is never the same again.
This is only the first of two narratives in Lisa Wingate’s 2017 novel Before We Were Yours. The second is told by present-day Avery Stafford, a lawyer being groomed to one day succeed her father as a senator in South Carolina. Embroiled in a heated re-election campaign, he’s moved his mother into an upscale nursing home, which makes for bad optics when compared to the poor conditions of most eldercare facilities in the state.
During a visit to one of those homes, Avery crosses paths with a resident named May Crandall. In one of May’s old photos, Avery recognizes what looks like a younger version of her Grandma Judy. This sets her off on a search that unearths a complicated, devastating family history, one of tragedy, mystery, and which could also endanger her and her father’s careers.
In three short years, Wingate’s enthralling novel has exploded, selling more than two million copies and spending more than fifty weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. It’s also appeared on bestseller lists for USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Publishers Weekly, as well as won the Southern Book Prize and the Goodreads 2017 Award for Best Historical Fiction, beating out authors like George Saunders, Ken Follett, Michael Chabon, and Jennifer Egan.
All the accolades have been well-deserved. The premise for the book was inspired by a late-night episode of “Women Above the Law” where Wingate learned of the real-life child trafficker Georgia Tann. Operator of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, Tann turned a community resource into a for-profit adoption center, abducting poor children to sell them to unwitting wealthy families, squeezing them for every last penny.
Tann’s practices were more than unscrupulous – they were abominable. Not only did she hire police and judges to keep her exploitation ring running, but she would dupe sedated mothers into surrendering their newborns and lie to parents about stillbirths and fetal deaths that never happened. Then she’d turn and sell their children to politicians or celebrities like Joan Crawford and June Allyson. In her wake, Tann left thousands of lives damaged and shattered. The psychological torture Rill endures becomes almost unfathomable.
“I want a pain I understand instead of the one I don’t. I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone.”
At Tann’s orphanage, kids are lied to, trapped in closets and basements, and heartlessly separated from one another. Even the groundskeeper keeps them up at night, with rumors of the way he lures kids into his cellar with peppermints and how some children “disappear” in the swamp. The Foss kids hardly stand a chance, though Rill believes her parents are still alive out there, looking for her, fighting for them, and that one day they might return to their family shantyboat and everything will to back to the way it once was.
Wingate tells this stunning story with faultless elegance and heartfelt tenderness, making this the kind of hard-to-put-down book that renders bookmarks obsolete. She keeps you hanging on, searching for some hope of justice, or at least a well-deserved reunion. But the deeper this story goes, the more you wonder what can possibly be salvaged from such an incident: because Georgia Tann wasn’t just good at kidnapping children – she had a penchant for destroying entire families.
Lisa Wingate will be one of this year’s headliners at UntitledTown 2020 to talk more about this book, Georgia Tann, and her life as a writer.