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Before We Were Yours Summary and Key Themes

“Before We Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate explores a harrowing historical scandal concerning child trafficking through dual narratives: Rill’s tragic experiences in 1939 and Avery’s present-day investigation into her family’s mysterious past.

Quick Summary: In 1939, Rill Foss’s life shatters when she’s taken to the corrupt Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Decades later, Avery Stafford discovers her family’s connection to the scandal, unraveling a tale of tragedy, love, and resilience that challenges her understanding of her family’s history.

Before We Were Yours Full Summary

The book oscillates between two timelines, offering a haunting exploration of a disturbing historical scandal interwoven with a contemporary family drama.

In 1939 Memphis, Rill Foss and her four siblings live a carefree life on their family’s shantyboat on the Mississippi River. But their world is upended when their parents are forced to leave them temporarily, and the children are snatched by strangers. 

These strangers take them to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, operated by the notorious Georgia Tann. Here, Rill finds herself in a desperate battle to keep her family together in the face of deception, cruelty, and the brutal realities of an institution where children are bought and sold.

Fast-forward to present-day South Carolina, Avery Stafford is a privileged federal prosecutor who stumbles upon an old photograph that hints at a dark family secret. As she delves deeper, Avery discovers the connection between her grandmother and the mysterious May Crandall, a resident of a nursing home. 

This revelation ties Avery’s family to the heart-wrenching history of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. As Avery digs deeper, she’s aided by Trent Turner, and together they uncover a story of love, loss, and resilience.

The novel delves into the real-life scandal of Georgia Tann, who, under the guise of a respected adoption agency, kidnapped and sold children to wealthy families. 

The narrative is a poignant reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the lasting impact of our choices.

Lisa Wingate masterfully captures the voices of her characters, contrasting the world of wealthy modern-day Southern aristocracy with the raw, gritty reality of Depression-era river life. 

The heart of the story revolves around family – both the one we’re born into and the one we choose. 

As the two timelines converge, the story sheds light on the lasting scars of the past and the power of truth and reconciliation.

before we were yours summary

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Key Themes

1. The Resilience of the Human Spirit and the Importance of Family Bonds

The story of Rill Foss underscores the remarkable resilience that individuals, especially children, can exhibit in the face of extreme adversity. 

Despite being separated from her family, subjected to a harsh environment in the orphanage, and facing a future of uncertainty, Rill never loses hope and continuously strives to reunite her siblings. 

This perseverance emphasizes the innate human desire for familial connections and the lengths to which one will go to preserve them.

Actionable Takeaway: In our own lives, when faced with challenges, whether personal, professional, or emotional, we can draw inspiration from Rill’s determination. 

When we prioritize our family and loved ones, and remember the bonds that tie us together, we can find strength and motivation to overcome even the toughest obstacles. 

It’s essential always to cherish and nurture those bonds and to lean on them during difficult times.

2. The Importance of Confronting and Understanding Our Past

Avery Stafford’s journey into her family’s hidden history teaches readers that confronting and understanding our past, no matter how painful, is crucial for personal growth and reconciliation. 

By investigating the connection between her grandmother and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Avery gains insight not only into her family’s history but also into broader societal issues of her grandmother’s time.

Actionable Takeaway: We all have parts of our personal or familial histories that may be difficult to face. However, avoiding or denying these truths can lead to unresolved feelings, misunderstandings, or misconceptions about our identities. 

By actively seeking to understand and confront our past, we can achieve a sense of closure, learn valuable lessons, and potentially bridge gaps in relationships or family narratives. 

Personal histories should be approached with empathy, understanding, and a willingness to learn and grow.

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3. The Complexity of Moral Judgments

Georgia Tann, despite being the novel’s antagonist responsible for countless heartbreaks, is also credited with changing society’s perception of adoption. 

This portrayal emphasizes that individuals and their actions often exist in shades of grey, rather than black and white. While Tann’s actions in separating families and profiting from child trafficking are reprehensible, she also played a role in making adoption more socially acceptable and, in some cases, may have genuinely believed she was doing what was best for the children.

Actionable Takeaway: When faced with moral dilemmas or when judging the actions of others, it’s important to remember that people are multi-dimensional, often shaped by their experiences, beliefs, and the societal context of their time. 

Instead of rushing to judgments, one should seek to understand the full context and nuances of a situation. 

This approach promotes empathy, reduces biases, and encourages a more comprehensive understanding of complex issues, whether they relate to personal relationships, workplace dynamics, or broader societal matters.

Final Thoughts

“Before We Were Yours” is a beautifully penned narrative that traverses the terrains of historical atrocities and familial bonds. Wingate’s portrayal of the real-life scandal of child trafficking is both harrowing and poignant. Through seamless shifts between timelines, she crafts a tale that is a testament to human resilience, the importance of truth, and the indomitable spirit of love and kinship. 

The novel serves as a stark reminder of the past’s lasting impact on the present and future.

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  1. I was deeply moved by the characters in this novel, especially Rill and Avery. Rill’s resilience and Avery’s journey of self-discovery really resonated with me. Also, a great analysis of the novel indeed.

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