Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth.
Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history.
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.