History is like a cluttered attic, hiding boxes stuffed with dark secrets in forgotten corners. One such secret is the work of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. Beginning in the 1920s and lasting through 1950, thousands of children were taken from loving, if impoverished, families and sold for high “adoption premiums” to wealthy parents out of state—including actress Joan Crawford. Many more children died of disease and neglect in mismanaged orphanages before they could be adopted. Tragically, authorities and politicians alike turned a blind eye to these atrocities while Georgia Tann shamelessly profited off of the exploitation of disadvantaged children, and the public remained unaware of her crimes. Even today, many people are not familiar with this dark chapter in history. However, through her newest novel, Before We Were Yours, author Lisa Wingate, who will be speaking at So Lit’s SouthBound event on June 14, sheds light on Georgia Tann’s evil actions—and the lasting trauma she inflicted on her helpless victims.
Before We Were Yours tells the story of Rill Foss, a twelve-year-old girl who lives an idyllic life aboard a shantyboat in Memphis in the year 1939 until she and her four siblings are snatched from their parents and brought to a home under the control of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The novel also follows Avery Stafford, a wealthy attorney in present day South Carolina, as she unravels Rill’s story in order to determine her family’s involvement in Georgia Tann’s crimes, uncovering a shocking truth. Wingate weaves together both of these tales seamlessly, creating a cohesive tale that is tenderly told, resonating with hope and familial affection. Although Before We Were Yours is a work of fiction, many of its characters and events are inspired by historical facts. It illuminates humans’ capacity for unspeakable evil while also demonstrating their capacity for kindness and resilience in the face of tragedy. Before We Were Yours is a captivating read, perfect for a summer afternoon outdoors, enveloped by the sounds of cicadas and rushing water.
Lisa Wingate is the author of over twenty novels. She will be reading from Before We Were Yours at So Lit’s SoundBound event on June 14, located at the Arts Building at 301 E 11th Street. More information can be found at www.southernlitalliance.org.