Before We Were Yours

⇒A true-life crime gets a novel treatment in a poignant story about the strong ties of family and the persistent pull of the truth.⇐

Authors: Lisa Wingate

(4.37 stars – Goodreads rating)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook

Published June 6, 2017, by Ballentine & October 16, 2018 (audio) by Random House Audio

Pages: 342 (Hardcover) ; 12 Discs / 14 1/2 hrs (Audio CDs)

Audiobook performed by Emily Rankin and Catherine Taber


Everything I wanted my life to be, it won’t be now. The path that brought me here is flooded over.

True Crime. How many of us are instantly captured by those two little words? They’re an instant draw for me, and you can also easily win me over with the phrase, “Based on real-life events.” Surely that’s one of the most intriguing phrases in all of entertainment.

Before We Were Yours is just such a story. Based on real-life events, it’s a story of tragedy and hard-fought survival. Told in dual perspectives, Lisa Wingate tosses us back and forth from the past (1939) and the present to tell the story of every parents’ worst nightmare. Here’s the Goodreads blurb…

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty. 
Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

So what about this story relates to true-life crime? Back in Depression-era Memphis, Tennessee, a real witch of a woman named Georgia Tann presided over an organization responsible for kidnapping and selling over 5,000 children from 1924-1950 in black market adoptions. She was a Robin Hood in reverse, stealing children from poor families in Memphis and selling them to rich families in and out of state. Over 500 of those children died while under the care of workers from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Tann died before facing prosecution, but her crimes were revealed and later served as a catalyst for adoption reform in Tennessee.

The book is written from the perspective of one of those stolen children, 12-year-old Rill Foss. She and her river gypsy siblings, Camellia, Fern, Lark, and Gabion, are stolen from their boathouse and taken to the orphanage after their extremely fertile parents, Queenie and Briny, are deceived into signing away their rights to their own children. In a painful chain of events, Rill – renamed May – watches as her sisters and brother are taken away one by one – some to be adopted by wealthy families, and some to darker things.

Together, we travel the living river. We turn our faces to the sunlight and fly time and time again home to Kingdom Arcadia.

The story is a dark one, sad, with several triggers for sensitive readers: child abuse, molestation, human trafficking, kidnapping, and cancer. The hopeful moments are few and far between and happen mostly in the present day story where Avery Stafford is hunting down the mysterious tendrils of her family’s darkest secret.

I’ve found in life that bygones are a bit like collard greens. They tend to taste bitter. It’s best not to chew on them overly long.

Wingate’s writing is captivating and brings humanity to the facts of the true tragedy of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Reading Before We Were Yours pushed me through the gamut of emotions – anger, fear, heartache, and mourning. The small victories Rill experiences aren’t enough to bring a sense of triumph to the story, despite its Hallmarkian ending.

Read this book for the lure of a historical event coming to life. Read it for its profound emotional effect and for the pull of its provocative characters, both past and present. And read it if you like stories about secrets revealed and all the repercussions that result from their exposure.

Read an excerpt of Before We Were Yours HERE  (Courtesy of

Lisa Wingate



Lisa Wingate is a former journalist, an inspirational speaker, and the bestselling author of more than twenty novels. Her work has won or been nominated for many awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, the Oklahoma Book Award, the Utah Library Award, the Carol Award, the Christy Award, and the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award. 

One thought on “Before We Were Yours

  1. Excellent review, Tiffany. You’ve really enlightened me to what this story is all about. I never knew it was based on true events. What an awful thing to happen to all of those poor children! 😤And to think the perpetrator died before her crimes came to light. Sounds like a difficult read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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