With the advent of DNA and genetic testing, it is possible to learn more about one's ancestors than ever before. And the popularity of these tests prove what mankind has always known, we want to know how we are connected to the past. The fundamental question of our identity or "who am I?" resounds loudly in Before We Were Yours as the story is told from the viewpoints of two narrators---Rill Foss, a twelve-year-old kidnapped along with her siblings from their houseboat on the Mississippi in 1939, and Avery Stafford, a thirty-something lawyer living in modern times who is trying to investigate a mystery involving her powerful family.
What the reader learns as the story weaves back and forth between narrators and time periods is that both are affected by the Tennessee Children's Home Society, which operated between 1924 to 1950 in the Memphis area. This society, led by a woman named Georgia Tann, not only dealt with actual orphans, trying to place them in good homes, but also with black market children, stolen from poor, underprivileged parents and placed with rich and well-to-do ones. These children might be stolen from hospitals where cooperating nurses or doctors would tip off the society if a desirable baby was born to poor parents. If these distraught parents reported this to authorities, the cases would be closed without investigations because the police and the court system were involved in the cover-up. The TCHS also destroyed records so if parents did trace their children to them, they would not be able to locate where the children were once they were adopted. This went on for years. A halfhearted investigation started in the 1940s but not until 1950 did the state get serious about investigation the claims against the TCHS and by then Georgia Tann had died from cancer. Many. may children never located their actual parents if they learned that they were a victim of this scam, even to today. Many other children died in the custody of the TCHS. It is estimated that at least 500 children died without being adopted or without proper burials or paperwork.
Rill and her siblings were the type of children that the society sought, cute blond-hair, blue-eyed kids. Rill, at twelve, was really too old to be adopted, but she was an observant and unique narrator as she tried desperately and vainly to keep her siblings together. I enjoyed the chapters set in the late 1930s very much for this reason. But when the story moved forward in time to Avery's story, everything felt contrived and very romance-novelish.
I am not sure which the readers who voted in the Goodreads poll liked better, the historical fiction (Rill's story) or the romance novel (Avery's story) but I know which I liked better: the historical information. In fact, Before We Were Yours has caused me to do a bit of my own research on the TCHS and I found what I learned equally fascinating and horrifying. How could this have happened and for as many years as it did? This is my favorite type of historical fiction, books where I learn something while being entertained.
For book club, here are some of the questions I plan to ask to generate a discussion, which I hope will be a good one?
- Did you like the book, why or why not? (We always ask this question first.)
- We've read quite a bit of historical fiction in our club. How does Before We Were Yours compare to the other selections in terms of informing you about the highlighted history (All the Light We Cannot See; The Nightingale; Lincoln in the Bardo; Pachinko; The Invention of Wings; Homegoing are a few I can think of out of my head.)
- Do you prefer historical fiction that teaches you something new, like about the Tennessee Children's Home Society, or ones that deal more with cultural information from the time like Pachinko?
- What do you think the theme of the book was? Do you think these themes resonate more with readers today? Why/Why not?
- Compare the narrators Rill and Avery and the halves of the book. Which did you like better.
- What do you think of the cover? What story does it tell?
- Georgia Tann ran a tight ship and often scrimped on food and clothing for the children, yet she lived a lavish life-style. What were some other observations you made about her from the text?
- What do you think the Foss family would have been like had they been allowed to stay together?
- Was Avery's family story believable and do you think that voters really would have cared where the family had the grandmother housed? What did you like/not like about her portions of the story? Was her relationship with Elliott believable? what about her romance with Trent?
- Why did Rill and her sisters keep their reunions a secret? Do you think that was really necessary?
- Why do you think that Trent's grandfather was so secretive about what he was investigating?
- Was the feel-good ending necessary?
- Have you or will you recommend this book to others?
RHS Book Club January 2019
(2 of 7 back reviews)