Louisiana, 1875: In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before.
Louisiana, 1987: For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt—until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students.
Having enjoyed Lisa Wingate’s last novel Before We Were Yours, I was pleased to see she had released a new book but I was left feeling disappointed. The blurb held a lot of promise but the two storylines did not mesh all that well and the book seemed disjointed as a result.
In 1875, Hannie is still living on the cotton plantation in Louisiana where she was once enslaved and dreams of being reunited with her mother and siblings who were sold before the end of the Civil War. Having narrowly escaped being sold herself, Hannie has memorised the names of all the owners who bought them with the hopes of finding them one day but life in the south isn’t that different for former slaves and her prospects for the future aren’t good. However, Hannie soon gets caught up in an inheritance dispute between Lavinia, the plantation’s impoverished heiress, and Juneau Jane, her Creole half-sister. Lavinia and Juneau June trust the wrong people and soon find themselves abducted by illegal slavers but are rescued by Hannie before they can be sold.
The inheritance plot is quite a murky one but Juneau June and Lavinia are at risk of being cheated out of their birthright if they don’t find their missing father. The two sisters form an unlikely alliance which has trouble written all over it and Hannie, suspecting they are in over their heads, disguises herself as a boy to follow them. Hannie’s premonition proves to be correct but she falls asleep at a crucial moment and almost misses the abduction of Lavinia and Juneau June. Nevertheless, Hannie manages a daring rescue but it soon becomes clear Lavinia has been severely traumatised by her ordeal and Juneau June has no intention of giving up their quest to find their father.
Hannie has no real interest in the inheritance, however the journey is likely to lead to Texas and she has reason to believe some of her family may be there. Hannie decides to accompany the sisters on their perilous journey but it is nowhere near as exciting as the blurb. The pace is very slow in parts and some of the chapters end with unresolved cliffhangers or time jumps. The inheritance plot held no real interest for me, mainly because it detracted from the real point of the book which was the story of how families, torn apart by slavery, fought to find each other again. The chapters are separated by moving letters from former slaves which were sent to newspapers in the hopes someone would recognise their loved ones and they would be reunited one day. These are real letters published in the Lost Friends column of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and are really thought-provoking, however Hannie’s quest to find her scattered family is handled almost like an afterthought which is a pity.
The second story concentrates on Benedetta (Benny) Silva, a young newly-qualified teacher who has accepted a post in rural Louisiana as a way of paying her student debts, however her poverty-stricken students aren’t really interested in learning and she’s finding it increasingly difficult fitting into the town. As Benny struggles to motivate her pupils she starts to bond with a young black girl named Lajuna who is hiding her love for reading and Benny soon discovers she has been using the library at the abandoned Gossett house. When Benny visits the place for herself, she realises the house has a treasure trove of knowledge and makes a point of contacting the current owner to ask for permission to use the books for the class.
The Gossett house turns out to be the remnants of the plantation once owned by Lavinia’s family and it has not faired well down the years. The family are still embroiled in an ownership dispute that seems to be centred around hiding the Gossett family’s sordid connection with slavery. It takes an incredibly long time before the connections between the two timelines are revealed but is soon becomes apparent that most of Benny’s students are descended from the original slaves. One the house’s secrets are revealed, Benny uses the information to inspire her students into celebrating their ancestors and the story is given a much needed boost.
While The Book of Lost Friends had some good ideas, I never really felt like I connected to the characters or the story which was a disappointment.