Synopsis: Before We Were Yours starts out slowly introducing Rill and her family in 1939 Memphis, Tennessee. They are a well-meaning and unconventional family, with a number of children living with their unwed parents outside of society on a small shanty boat anchored on the Mississippi River. When the soon-to-be newest member of the family causes difficulties and threatens to take mother and child in the labor process, the father is forced to leave his children to take her to the hospital. Shortly after, their lives will all be dramatically changed.
Moving forward to present day Aiken, South Carolina, Avery is being groomed to take over her father’s place in politics following her successful career as a federal prosecutor. She is engaged to a man from a respectable family, if only they just had a chance to see each other every now and then and pin down the date for their mothers. But when Avery visits a senior center for publicity and sees a photograph of what appears to be her grandmother in the room of an elderly lady, Avery can’t shake the feeling that there is more to her grandmother than she thought.
The story is told within the historical context of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, Tann organized and saw to the abduction, trafficking, and sale of thousands of children within her network of “foster homes.” Children, especially blonds, were targeted by “spotters” and snatched from porches, while walking to school, or otherwise unattended. Mothers still under sedation from delivery were tricked into signing paperwork that gave their children over to the Society. They were told a manner of lies to get their signature: that their baby had died during delivery and the signature would provide a burial for the child. Other fabrications insisted that in order to get the child medical treatment, they needed to turn over custody temporarily.*
Before We Were Yours starts slow, especially in getting to the main historical content. Chapters alternate between Rill’s story in 1939 and Avery’s in the present. While I eventually became interested in Rill’s story, I never grew attached to Avery’s character or her story. Despite ending the book firmly not liking Avery, I did appreciate that the author tried to addressed Avery’s white, rich privilege and had her question her assumptions and beliefs about herself and her family. Unfortunately, it felt like they were only superficial insights as it doesn’t change her much. I also found Avery to be incredibly naïve, especially for someone who is from the legal world and going into politics. Her belief that her family is squeaky clean, un-reproachable, and surely would never lie about their past to make them look better became tiresome and annoying. While I try not to let characters that I have soured to dictate my enjoyment of the novel, it is precisely that Avery didn’t grow in a meaningful way from her insights that made the ending fall flat for me.
I wavered between 2.5 and 3 stars. I chose an average rating for a few reasons. The ending didn’t really explain why the sisters chose to keep their secret. The build up of the story doesn’t deliver. Instead, it circumnavigates around giving answers in order to wrap up with a happily-ever-after and a distraction of a romance sub-subplot. This gave it a feeling of being rushed and incomplete. The writing was another issue with overly puffed-up sentences and unnecessary and sometimes odd similes. Finally, I failed to see the way Rill’s character transitions from the past to the present. Her present self was written more like Camellia–with a bit of an attitude and snark. It doesn’t match the development and realizations that Rill goes through.
What Before We Were Yours lacked in clean structure and clarity of character development, it made up for in the emotional and mental revelations that came with learning about this piece of history. I was unaware of Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society before I pick this book and it spurred me to read more about it. Readers who enjoy historical fiction, non-linear or multiple timelines, or family-driven stories would enjoy Before We Were Yours.