Lisa Wingate’s latest novel, Before We Were Yours, opens with an unidentified narrator: “My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon. The room takes life only in my imaginings.” The room is a labor-and-delivery ward, and its inhabitant is a “gentle, fragile soul. Not the sort who would intentionally bring about the catastrophic unraveling that is only, this moment, beginning.” The woman in the room has just given birth to a stillborn baby, as the young mother’s own father, anguished and helpless, keeps vigil. The doctor advises against another pregnancy out of fear for the woman’s life. But, he says in hushed tones, “I know of a woman in Memphis….”
Thus begins a fictional account of a family torn apart by a very real historical villain—Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, a woman who makes Annie’s Miss Hannigan look nurturing in comparison. For three decades Tann ran a black-market adoption ring with the complicity of police, lawmakers, and other powerful Memphians. She died in 1950 before she could be brought to justice for arranging thousands of illegitimate adoptions for her own financial gain, and for the kidnapping, mistreatment, and even murder of children who passed through her orphanage. (For more background on Georgia Tann’s baby-selling operation, see The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, a nonfiction account published in 2009.)
One of the narrators of Wingate’s novel is a twelve-year-old girl named Rill who lives with her parents and four younger siblings on the Mississippi River in a shanty boat named the Arcadia. It is the 1930s as Rill’s story begins, and the Arcadia is tied up in shallow water across from Mud Island near Memphis. “When you’re born on the river, you take to it as natural as drawing breath,” she says. “You know its sounds and its ways and its critters. For river rats like us, the water’s a homeplace. A safe place.”
On this night, Rill’s adored mother, Queenie, is in labor with her sixth child, and the eldest girl senses that something is about to go wrong. Her presentiment begins to take shape when the midwife announces that the baby is in a breech position. Also, there’s more than one baby. Queenie and Rill’s father, Briny, are forced to go to the hospital for the delivery, and the children are left behind on the river in Rill’s care. Thus begins a nightmare of confusion and heartbreak for the family.
Wingate’s present-day narrator, Avery Stafford, is a thirty-year-old U.S. attorney in Baltimore and the presumptive heir to her family’s long political dynasty. Avery has always believed herself to be “the family torchbearer, the son replacement”—the natural successor to her father, a sitting U.S. senator from South Carolina. The senator has recently been diagnosed with cancer, news which has brought Avery home so that she can be covertly groomed to take his seat if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. To Avery it feels a bit like purgatory: she misses her old life, and she loves her father. She didn’t expect to be called to family duty anytime soon.
During a political appearance at a nursing home as part of that duty, Avery has an intense encounter with May Crandall, a new resident. When the nursing home calls to say that Ms. Crandall has been found in possession of the heirloom bracelet Avery had been wearing on her visit the day before, Avery can’t resist the opportunity to revisit the scene of their first unsettling meeting. “I know I shouldn’t be nosy,” Avery thinks as she looks around the elderly woman’s empty room, “but I can still see May looking up at me with her robin’s-egg-blue eyes, seeming to need something. Desperately.”
In what ends up being an act of rebellion against her appearances-minded circle of friends and family, Avery quickly allows herself to be pulled into a murky historical investigation that threatens to drag her and her career down like the undertow of the Mississippi River.
Wingate masterfully reveals details about May and Avery’s family histories, telling the historical and present-day stories in turn and concealing the final puzzle pieces until the very end. Rich in historical detail and full of finely-drawn characters, Before We Were Yours is equal parts historical fiction, Southern lit, romance, and page-turner.
Kathryn Justice Leache lives Memphis, her hometown. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books and The Booksellers at Laurelwood. She will soon be working at Novel, an independent bookstore opening in summer 2017 in Memphis.