The Bookends

Before We Were Yours: A Novel
By Lisa Wingate

Rill Foss and her siblings are ripped from their family and the magical life they had living on the river. They find themselves thrown into Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, where they must try to survive and stay together.

Avery Stafford seems to have a perfect life. She is being groomed to take a senate seat her family has held for generations, she is a successful attorney, and she is engaged to a handsome man. However, she puts her life on hold and heads home to help her father navigate his political life as he struggles with health issues. Avery meets a woman in a nursing home that will change her life, as well as her perspective on her life. As Avery works to solve the mysterious connection between this woman and her family, she will be forced to face hard truths that may threaten her high profile family.

This book is based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy and some famous families all over the country.


PAM: The fact that this book is based on a true story is truly heartbreaking. We meet Rill Foss and her family in 1939, as her mother faces a difficult birth and must be taken to a hospital for emergency medical care. Rill and her siblings are taken from their boat (The Arcadia) and find themselves in Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. They are told that if they are good they will be taken to their parents, but the older siblings begin to see through this lie quickly. Rill was so young to have the job of trying to keep her family together when she had no control of their futures. Did your heart break for this little girl?

BECKY: Oh, this story stayed in my mind long after laying the book down. My grandfather grew up in an orphanage and he wouldn’t discuss his experience there. This book gave me a picture of what he might have endured and it is absolutely disgusting that this story is based on an actual account in history. Rill was a likable girl that came to life for me as I was reading this story. It was hard to forget that it was just a character in a book. The story that is set in 1939 revolves around people that are poor and taken advantage of. The other side of the story is based off a very wealthy political family. Do you think that the author was successful in blending those two opposites into one cohesive story?

PAM: I do believe that the author was successful in bringing such different points of view together. I am with you, Becky. I could not stop thinking about this story. Thinking about my own children and the bonds I share with them made this story painful. The other side of the story, which follows a wealthy and political family, was sad for other reasons. Although the family had plenty of money, the lost family and connections with loved ones were just as painful. What I found most frustrating and sad was that there were human beings who felt that they had the right to pass judgement and change (ruin) lives based on stereotypes and misconceptions. Do you think these people reasoned that they were saving these “river rats” or do you think they were simply blinded to the tragedies by money made in this scheme?

BECKY: I would like to think that Georgia Tann thought she was saving souls but I could not find evidence to support that thought. It was gruesome yet fascinating to dig deeper into the background of this story. She made a great deal of money during this time and had many key people help her manipulate the system. Between 1924 and 1950 she is thought to be responsible for over 5,000 children being displaced from their original families. It is believed that no less than 100 children died in her care from abuse, neglect or lack of medical attention. Thankfully one curious social worker helped stop her deplorable actions. I could go on and on about this curious situation but I should get back to the review. Do you think that some of the adopting families knew that Georgia Tann was a dirty businesswoman or was she an expert at deception?

PAM: I believe she had to be an expert at deception to have gotten away with her actions for so long. However, I imagine that some families that adopted the children in her “care” noticed things out of the ordinary. Perhaps they told themselves they were saving these children and giving them a better life or were so desperate for children they were willing to turn a blind eye. Rill and a younger sister were adopted by a couple that had lost children and were struggling with their situation. They adopted the younger sister, then later brought Rill to their home. This was a complicated situation for Rill and her feelings of obligation towards her family. How did you feel when Rill was reunited with her sister?

BECKY: This was a bittersweet situation. Rill’s sister was younger and it appeared as if she easily moved on from her recent kidnapping, and separation from parents and siblings. She was flourishing under the care of her new family. However, Rill was less comfortable conforming to the change. It was a blessing that they were no longer in the horrific orphanage but distressing to know that the family was separated and experienced unforgettable loss and pain. What did you think about the ending and would you recommend this story?

PAM: I enjoyed the way the different times were brought together to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. I also appreciated the determination of the siblings and their honor of the family ties. I would recommend this book to others as a great (but very sad) story, as well as an opportunity to acknowledge the history that this story revolves around. As we close this chapter, where are we headed next month?

BECKY: We will be reading a nonfiction book called Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard. It’s a story about an ultra marathon runner and a little dog that was found in the Gobi desert.

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