Friday, July 6, 2018

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate (author),Emily Rankin (narrator), Catherine Taber (narrator)

Random House Audio, June 2017

In 1939, the five Foss children, four girls and a boy, are living a happy, even magical life on the river in Tennessee, with their loving parents, in a houseboat.

In the present day, Avery Stafford has moved home from Maryland and a position as a federal prosecutor, to Aiken, South Carolina, to support her parents during her father's cancer treatment, and to be groomed to, possibly, run for her father's Senate seat if he has to step down.

When the Foss children's mother, Queenie, goes into a difficult labor with twins, and needs to be taken to the hospital in Memphis, the children bet caught up in the Tennessee Children's Home. In 1939, it's highly regarded. Georgia Tann is regarded as hero, breaking down the idea that orphan children are damaged and not good risks, popularizing adoption, and finding children in need loving, forever homes.

Later, she'll be famous as The Baby Thief, stealing children from the poor or tricking their parents to sign them over, thinking they're signing papers to get medical bills paid. The orphanage system she ran was abusive and often fatal for children not deemed desirable candidates for adoption by wealthy families able to pay large fees that she mostly pocketed.

The oldest Foss child, Rill Foss, struggles to keep her siblings together, but she's only twelve, and she and three of her siblings have beautiful, golden curls, making them desirable adoption candidates.

Avery, on a visit to a nursing home with her Senator father, meets an elderly woman who has a picture of a couple from the 1939. The woman looks remarkably like Avery's grandmother--and the elderly woman initially addresses Avery as Fern.

Avery is soon digging into the past, trying to figure out what connection this woman has to her grandmother, now disconnected from reality more days than not, living in anther nursing home with a good memory unit. If she finds the truth, will it answer important questions, or will it unearth a scandal that will damage and possibly end the Stafford political dynasty?

Both Rill and Avery are engaging, likable characters, and we get their stories in alternating chapters, read by different narrators, helping to make them more distinct. The horrors of Mrs. Murphy's orphanage, one of many part of the Tennessee Children's Home system (a fictional example, as the Foss children are fictional victims of that system), are realistically portrayed, based on the descriptions and experiences of real survivors of the system.

Avery's family are upper crust Southerners, with perfect manners, a dedication to public service, good values, and a concern about "what will people think" that's alien and a bit distasteful to my working class, New England upbringing. I think this is a real difference in regional culture, and this is something Avery genuinely struggles with. She's been raised to always do the right thing, but "doing the right thing" includes maintaining the family reputation as a thing in itself. She thinks it's genuinely important to find the truth about her grandmother's connection to May Crandall, but "doing the right thing" includes not risking exposing information that would reveal them as not being who they're assumed to be. And that includes, not revealing the fact that their ancestry might include river gypsies, not just pure, blue-blood Southern aristocracy.

That's incomprehensible to me. To me, it means, your family history just got more interesting. If her great-grandparents were knowingly involved in a shady adoption, that's their fault, and in no way the fault of her grandparents, parents, or her. If they didn't know it was shady, the great-grandparents aren't at fault, either. You can only act on what you know or reasonably should have known, and you don't have guilt for events you weren't born for and never knew about. You can have responsibility for what you do if and when you find out, but that's a different matter.

But part of reading fiction is encountering and learning to empathize with different views, lives, and value systems. Avery and her family are good people raised in a culture I don't share, and it's good to get to know them. (Rill and her family, of course, are covered by the rule that the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there.)

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.