Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Review: Children as human beings, not commodities

Review of: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Source: Purchase, Half Price Books
Grade: A 
Congratulations! You are now reading post number 1,000 published on this blog! Not that I keep track (seriously, it seems like a lot more than 1,000!) but Blogger does. And having started with an initial post decrying the ghettoization of women’s literature aka “chick lit” (“No more C-word”) it seems fitting to devote this 1,000 post to a review of a book by a bestselling female author and fellow Texan, Lisa Wingate, with a cast primarily of girls and women, Before We Were Yours
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In 1939, 12-year-old Rill Foss couldn’t imagine any life—certainly not any life better—than her family’s annual trek up and down the Mississippi River in the houseboat her father Briny built with his own hands and named Arcadia. Until, that is, the stormy night he set off in search of medical care for his wife, near death from a difficult childbirth, leaving Rill in charge of her four younger siblings.
It would be the Foss children’s last night aboard the Arcadia. And their last night of life as a family. 
Unknown to them, professional child-spotters were on their track after having already snatched their just-born twin siblings and persuaded the parents that the babies had been stillborn. Rill, her three younger sisters and little brother would soon also be imprisoned in a foster home run by a merciless woman who disguised her sale of children as adoptions.
The secrecy and lies that followed would dog Rill and her siblings for the rest of their lives.
In the present day, Avery Stafford is having family problems of her own. She has given up her job in a U.S. attorney’s office to return to South Carolina to take up the political mantle of her father, a prominent senator, now fighting cancer. Almost as worrisome to Avery is the situation of Senator Stafford’s mother, her beloved Grandma Judy, whose increasing dementia has necessitated her move to a nursing home. It’s a home whose cost is far beyond the means of most of the senator’s constituents, a fact his political opponents are eager to exploit.
The last thing the Stafford family needs is a potential scandal underlying her grandmother’s past. Or the strange elderly woman who, during a political photo-op at a nursing home, addresses Avery as “Fern.” And who bears a striking resemblance to Grandma Judy. 
Avery’s gradual unraveling of the secrets of decades—and generations—will lead through a past darker and stranger than she could ever have imagined. It’s a past that could reunite a family. Or tear it apart.
***
I met Lisa Wingate, author of Before We Were Yours, at the Dallas Book Festival this past spring. Coming in late from another meeting, I found her discussing the real history behind her fictionalized story of one of the biggest child-abuse scandals of the past 100 years—the kidnapping and selling of babies and children to the highest bidders by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. 
Children ripped from the arms of poor but often-loving families, housed in deplorable conditions by profit-seeking contractors, all with the collusion of high-level government officials. The scenario sounds as if it could have been taken from today’s newsfeed, in a way Wingate could not have anticipated as she wrote. But it was the modus operandi of early 20th century baby seller Georgia Tann, who benefited to the tune of roughly $10 million in today’s terms from her 30-something years of work with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Admittedly, Tann’s interest during her tenure from 1920-1951 was in attractive white children (preferably blonds) who could be offered to adoptive parents at often exorbitant fees. At the time, Tann was hailed as a woman who “saved” children from poverty by arranging their adoptions to wealthy families. She died of uterine cancer before she could be subjected to legal action for her crimes against children and their birth and adoptive families and the investigator of her children’s home found himself “stymied by powerful people with secrets, reputations, and, in some cases, adoptions to preserve,” Wingate writes.
“If there is one overarching lesson to be learned. . . it is that babies and children, no matter what corner of the world they hail from, are not commodities, or objects, or blank slates, as Georgia Tann so often represented her wards; they are human beings with histories, and heeds, and hopes, and dreams of their own.”