For three decades beginning in the 1920s, the director of a
Memphis-based adoption organization kidnapped poor children and sold
them to wealthy people who were pining for a child. It is estimated
that by various fraudulent means Georgia Tann stole more than 5,000
children before Tennessee authorities discovered the scam and shut down
Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours imagines a family torn apart by Tann. It begins with the five Foss children living with their parents on a Mississippi River shantyboat near Memphis. On a night in 1939 when their father has rushed their mother, who is about to give birth, to the hospital, strangers arrive at the boat and take the children to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. Twelve-year-old Rill, the oldest, struggles, unsuccessfully, to keep the siblings together.
In a second storyline, present-day Avery Stafford looks into the history of her wealthy, powerful South Carolina family and discovers its connection to Tann. Avery’s tale, though less riveting than the historical chapters, lets Wingate broaden the story to succeeding generations and provide the happy ending of a Foss reunion.
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