Before We Were Yours

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. By Lisa Wingate. Ballentine Books. 334 pages. $26.

Questions of identity are the lifeblood of fiction, for readers and writers alike. Novelists develop characters to breathe life into a new and, we hope, fully-formed fictional being — someone the reader can understand and relate to. We delve into stories to find reflections of our own experiences, to connect with characters, or not, taking solace in the small relief that our disappointments don’t hold a candle to their disasters.

Lisa Wingate’s solid novel, “Before We Were Yours,” rotates on that fundamental “Who am I?” axis. She weaves a twisting, fascinating tale in this genre-agnostic book that has more heft than a light beach read and more staying power than chick lit, thanks to a compelling storyline and deft character development. It falls somewhere between historical fiction, with its core plot tied to true-story horrors of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society black market adoption dealings in the 1920s to 1950, and regional fiction, set largely in Tennessee and South Carolina, including Edisto Beach.

But there’s still a bit of a kitchen soup approach as chapters and points of view toggle between the story of the intrepid 12-year-old Rill Foss and her young siblings who get kidnapped from their family’s Mississippi River shanty boat in 1939, and a modern day (albeit limp) romance of Avery Stafford, bent on investigating the mysterious past of her political powerhouse family.

The novel shines when Wingate transports us back in time to the scrappy life of river gypsies. Through crisp, fluid dialogue and rich detail we get a vivid sense of the rough-and-tumble, highly lovable Foss gang. Best are the river scenes, including a fire on the Arcadia (their floating home) and the wrenching account of Rill and her siblings being ripped away from all they know and love while their pregnant mother, Queenie, and father, Briny, rush to the hospital during a fateful child-birth emergency. It’s well-paced action and suspense embellished with lively prose. We’re brokenhearted as the vulnerable kids end up in the hands of the wretched Georgia Tann, “wards” of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

“I don’t know what wards means when I first hear Mrs. Murphy say it on the telephone,” the clever Rill says. “I can’t ask either, since I’m not supposed to be listening in … (but) I figure it out from the conversation quick enough — Wards means that these kids’ parents didn’t come back for them. The kids here say that if your parents don’t come get you, Miss Tann gives you to somebody else, and they take you home. Sometimes those people keep you, and sometimes they don’t.” Rill begins to piece it together as the reader’s heart begins to break.

The character of evil Miss Tann is based on the actual Georgia Tann, whose child trafficking operation pandered to wealthy clients including Hollywood’s Joan Crawford and June Allyson, until it was closed down in 1950 — fertile story material that Wingate effectively plows. I’d have been a satisfied reader had she only given us the Foss kids and their tragic-heroic adventures as they tried to preserve a sense of family and identity under horrific circumstances.

When Wingate fast-forwards to the present-day Avery Stafford and her family, whose dementia-rattled grandmother, Judy, turns out to have been one of the adopted Foss kids, we don’t quite get the depth of emotion that I think the author intended to evoke. The plot here, especially Avery’s budding romance, is predictable and less-than-juicy.

That said, Wingate is adept enough at winding past and present to keep the pages turning. “Before We Were Yours” gives us memorable characters who bring to life a fascinating fictional account of a historical episode that should not be forgotten.

Reviewer Stephanie Hunt is a freelance writer in Charleston.