In 1939, twelve-year-old Rill Foss lives on a houseboat on the Mississippi with her parents and four younger siblings, however when her father has to rush her mother to hospital after she goes into early labour with twins, Rill is left alone to care for her siblings. The following day, the children are forcibly removed from the houseboat and taken into the care of Georgia Tann who runs the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
The children, believing they will be reunited with their parents, are shocked by the harsh treatment meted out by the staff at the orphanage where they are placed. Rill, realising something isn’t quite right, soon discovers the Foss children with their blue eyes and blonde hair are prime candidates for adoption and they are being sold to prospective parents. A horrified Rill fights to keep her siblings together but time is against her as the children disappear one by one.
In the present day, Avery Stafford returns home to South Carolina where her father is undergoing intensive treatment for cancer. A successful lawyer, Avery is being groomed to take over her father’s seat in the Senate but a chance encounter at a senior care facility has her questioning everything she once believed in. Who is May Crandall and why does she think Avery is her relative? Intrigued, Avery does her own research and is horrified when she discovers a tragic tale of how poor children were sold to wealthy families all over the country.
Before We Were Yours is inspired by the true events surrounding Georgia Tann, an American child trafficker who operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. From the 1920s through to the 1950s, Tann used her orphanage as a front for a black market baby adoption scheme to sell children to wealthy parents which included prominent clients like Hollywood actresses, Joan Crawford and June Allyson. Tann used a variety of methods to procure the children, including taking children out of nurseries in the guise of a welfare agent or directly kidnapping them from their homes. However, Tann’s favourite targets were unmarried mothers who were often told their child had died soon after birth.
After years of suspicion, an investigation was finally begun in 1950 and that’s when authorities realised Tann was operating an illegal adoption ring. Tann had been careful to destroy much of the paperwork over the years, arguing it was essential to maintain the privacy of her clients, however secret bank accounts were discovered proving Tann had been paying a judge to process the adoptions. When the scandal broke, hundreds of parents began the painful process of trying to discover what had happened to their children, while adopted children sought to be reunited with their birth parents. Sadly, not all the children lived long enough to be adopted and it is believed hundreds may have died due to a combination of abuse and neglect.
While the Foss children are fictional, their plight at the orphanage was very real and makes for heartbreaking reading. Rill is a courageous character whose main focus is to keep her siblings safe while plotting their escape but she is forced to watch as her siblings are taken away one by one. The story is told in the dual narrative format with Rill the narrator of the 1939 chapters, and although the children are all given different names, it is easy to work out May Crandall is actually Rill. The mystery is how Avery Stafford’s grandmother, Judy, fits into the picture and the reader is strung along for most of the novel before that part is revealed. It did get quite frustrating at times because just when it seemed we were about to learn everything, something else would happen and we’d be back to square one.
The book is less successful, however, when we move to the present day and follow Avery Stafford as she tries to solve the mystery of how May Crandall is connected to her family. The Staffords are an old Southern family with solid social and political connections so any scandal could have huge a impact on Avery’s future career in politics. Avery’s life is just a little too perfect as we learn how she has become a successful attorney and is about to marry her childhood sweetheart who is also from a prominent Southern family. Everything in Avery’s life seems like it has been mapped out for her since childhood, but the meeting with May Crandall is about to create waves as Avery realises something is lacking and May’s story becomes the catalyst for change.
However, I can’t help feeling cheated by not being allowed to see how May set about tracking down her siblings once the scandal broke. May hints at the life she led after her adoption and it all seems so much more interesting than what we got with Avery so I would have liked for her to have remained as the sole main character and seen those sisters reunited.