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a bookclique pick by Currie Engel

I stumbled upon Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours by accident. Frustrated by the cliché plot and predictable dialogue in the book I had originally chosen to review, I found myself entranced by the voice of 12-year-old Rill Foss in Wingate’s stunning novel.

The book’s split narrative tells the story of Rill, a ward of the state in 1939 who struggles under the cruelty of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and the present day account of aspiring politician, Avery, who is driven by love, curiosity, and a sense of political duty to uncover her grandmother’s mysterious family secrets. As Avery carefully untangles the past, we feel all the weight of conscience and fear that comes with uncovering family secrets.

Like Avery, I was immediately driven by a desire to understand the Tennessee Children’s Society Home and its history. The true stories of abuse, loss, and fractured families I found in my own research are perfectly echoed in Wingate’s novel in which she captures a little piece of tragic, hushed-up American history and makes it real for her readers.

The trade of children within the book—of beautiful, blue-eyed, blonde children, especially—is a haunting reminder of the ways in which bodies can be commodified and sold to the highest bidder. Interestingly, there is a clear link between the tale of stolen children and our country’s dark history of slavery. Rill and her four siblings quite literally face an auction block where they are separated forever, their family bonds along with their true identities obliterated.

Stunned by the cruelty of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, I realized that these dark histories are part of the American story, and thus, a part of our own family stories, as well. Fictional Rill stands for the countless many who were silenced, stolen, and forced into a false orphanhood. In Wingate’s novel, Rill and those she represents gain a voice.

Currie Engel

Currie Engel is a New York-based journalist who writes for various outlets on health and social issues. She recently received her Masters at Columbia Journalism School and is enjoying being twenty-something in a place where $1 pizza slices are plentiful, and “green space” means an aloe plant in your (incredibly small) kitchen.