Last month I had a wonderful time meeting friends both old and new at the Waskom library for a book discussion. I love to talk about books! It was a good turnout for a great novel. The book selected for this meeting was Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate.
For readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale—an engrossing new novel, inspired by a true story, about two families, generations apart, that are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice. Before We Were Yours brilliantly fictionalizes and brings to life one of America’s most notorious adoption scandals.
From the 1920s through 1950, thousands of children of single mothers and poverty-stricken parents were taken away — sometimes even quietly whisked off front porches or from hospital maternity wards — by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and its Memphis branch director, Georgia Tann. While heartbroken birth mothers searched for their stolen sons and daughters, the children were often kept in unlicensed boarding facilities and given new names and histories before being transported around the country to adoptive parents who could afford to pay.
I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion. Before We Were Yours was one of the best historical novels I read in 2017. You can read my Book Break post about it here.
I don’t get to visit the Waskom library often, but the draw of a good book discussion and the bonus of the library’s recent face lift piqued my interest. I wanted to come out and see what it was all about. You can learn what’s new at the library by checking out this video on a local news site here.
If you live nearby or are just passing through, you should stop by and enjoy the library. The staff is wonderful, some of the friendliest people around. The Waskom public library serves the surrounding area, so you don’t have to live in town to be a patron, and a library card is free.
Lisa, along with fellow author Kellie Coates Gilbert, came to the Waskom library a while back and gave us a presentation, and they did an amazing workshop that was well attended. When I asked Lisa if she remembered us she said she sure did! She graciously provided answers to these interview questions.
What are some of the most interesting things you found about this subject that you weren’t able to use in the story?
Because Before We Were Yours is fiction, I was able to thread in what I felt were the most interesting pieces of the true-life history of Georgia Tann and her Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. One interesting aspect of the true story that isn’t in the novel is the special investigation that was conducted as Georgia Tann’s operation was finally shut down in 1950. The original Report to Governor Browning was filled with information about Tann’s nefarious methods, the deaths of children in her system of unregulated boarding homes, and the sheer panic of adoptive families who were terrified that the children they’d raised for years would be taken away. There were also some wonderful newspaper stories written years later, telling the reunion stories of birth families finally reunited.
How much research did you have to do for this book?
The book was research-intensive. I took in nearly everything I could find about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis and Georgia Tann. In large part, I found bits of the story here and bits there. The Discovery Channel’s Deadly Women feature and a 60 Minutes segment provided helpful information and visuals. Several books, including, Babies For Sale by Linda Austin and The Baby Thief by Barbara Raymond were particularly helpful in researching the adoption scandal. Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat Journal was a beautiful account of shantyboat life on the river. I also spent time in Memphis, researching locations, combing through the river museum, visiting the library and the university’s photo archives, and talking to people who remembered the scandal.
What do you hope the reader takes away from the story?
I hope readers take away the message that we need not be defined by our pasts. I hope Rill’s experience resonates with readers who have in some way surrendered to the wounds of painful past experiences. Rill faces that battle as she matures. As an old woman, she advises thirty-year-old Avery, “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear it, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.” Living in a defensive posture is another form of allowing other people to dictate who we are and what we believe about ourselves. Letting go, dancing to our own music is a risk, but on the other side of that process lays light, freedom and fulfillment. That’s what I hope that’s what people take away from Before We Were Yours. Our lives have purpose, but to fulfill that purpose we must first claim ourselves.
I also hope that, in a broader sense, the story of Rill and the Foss children serves to document the lives of all the children who disappeared into Georgia Tann’s unregulated system. Only by remembering history are we reminded not to let it repeat itself. It’s important that we, ordinary people busy with the rush of every day life, remember that children are vulnerable, that on any given day, thousands of children live the uncertainty of Rill’s journey. We have to be aware. We must be kind neighbors, determined protectors, willing encouragers, wise teachers, and strong advocates, not just for the children who are ours by birth, but for all children.
Thank you, Lisa!
If you are looking for a good book to read, you can’t beat this novel. Have you read it yet? What did you think?
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Don’t forget to go visit a library this week!