Book Review: “Before We Were Yours”

“But the love of sisters needs no words. It does not depend on memories, or mementos, or proof. It runs as deep as a heartbeat. It is as ever-present as a pulse.” – Before We Were Yours

This work is a piece of historical fiction with a braided timeline of the past and present, which keeps readers in suspense, constantly guessing how Rill Foss and Avery Stafford are connected. 

Memphis, 1939: Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four siblings are stolen from their magic life upon the shanty boat Arcadia. Torn from their old lives, the siblings are placed in the Tennessee Children’s Home, where they are renamed so that no one can find them. They endure unspeakable horrors until each is doled out to wealthy families. 

South Carolina, present day: Avery Stafford is born into a life of privilege in a Senate family, which maps out her life before she is given the opportunity to choose. A chance encounter with an old family friend, of whom she’s never met, her parents have no recollection, and her grandmother, with waning memory, reacts to with strange ramblings, leads her on a journey to discover how her family is tied to the children at the Tennessee Children’s Home. 

I love that this novel exposes a largely unknown, abhorrent piece of history that shaped the modern world. The novel is based on the real-life scandal of Georgia Tann’s corrupt children’s home that trafficked black market babies out of her unlicensed Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Many of her practices, designed to obscure the origin of her wards, have been adopted into modern adoption practices. Nonetheless, her practice of adopting out to influential families did allow for the normalization of adoption. 

Previous to this book, I had never encountered the atrocious acts of Georgia Tann. The novel depicts her team of employees as not only complacent in the horrors Tann inflicted upon the children but as having administered their own cruelties to these stolen children. Forced to endure hunger, humiliation, and treatment as if they were merely meat being kept just good enough until they could be sold, these children kept their heads low until they could escape from the children’s home via adoption: their only hope. While fictional liberties were taken in the novel, most of the horrors depicted are true, including the possibility of the adoption matron being the most prolific serial killer. The fear Rill has for her sisters and herself is so palatable that the book had my heart beating in terror beside them. 

I had a harder time connecting to Avery’s story. Her place appears to be as an investigator so that the information gleaned can be doled out to readers slowly. Since we were in the present-day minds of the children, we already knew what happened. While I do understand Avery’s role, I think it could have been made more intriguing. I would have liked to see more happen with her and how she moves forward in life with the knowledge she gains about her family taking part in the Tennessee Children’s Hospital scandal. 

My biggest critique of the novel was the touch of romance. As an incredibly feminist story of sisters surviving hell together, having Avery find that she wants something else in life via a budding romance seemed to take away from the message of women’s strength. 

If you choose to pick up Before We Were Yours, prepare for heartbreak and healing that will make you want to hug your siblings and spend as much time as you can with them. 

I give the novel 3.5/5.

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