Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Genre: Historical Fiction
Twelve-year-old Rill and her four siblings live an enchanted life aboard the shanty boat their family calls home. Moving from place to place, living off whatever the river provides, to Rill, life on the river is all she has ever known. When their parents are forced to rush to the hospital one night, the five children are snatched from their home and find themselves forced into a life more horrible than they could have ever imagined at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society Orphanage.
Present Day: Avery Stafford knows that her family’s name and wealth is to be protected at all costs. But when she encounters an old woman who seems to recognize her bracelet, a gift from her grandmother, Avery begins to delve into the past, unearthing a long hidden tragedy that could tarnish the family name.
I was torn by this book. The segments told from Rill’s perspective were fantastically written, drawing on a vernacular that added flavor and life to the story. You felt that you were listening to the voice of a twelve-year-old girl from the river. Rill’s anguish, growth, and coming of age were heart-breakingly compelling. I knew little about shanty boat life on the river and even less about the tragedy that was the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in the early 20th century. While not perfect–many of Wingate’s supporting characters were one-dimensional, clearly serving a specific purpose–I was drawn in by Rill’s story, by her anguish, and the shattering of her innocence.
The present day segments I could honestly have done without. Avery was . . . annoying at best, and her life as a lawyer/aspiring politician seemed unbelievable. Her voice lacked the education I would have expected. Her relationships, especially the love triangle Wingate set up, just seemed unnecessary in a book that was clearly focused on the more interesting story of the past. I did find the mystery aspect of this segment somewhat intriguing, but that was because it hinged on the characters we cared about from 1939. The reveal was not as obvious as I thought it would be, but it lacked that world-shattering impact I experienced from Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.
Wingate’s biggest weakness is the one-dimensionality of most of her characters outside of Rill–but I was still drawn in by her tale of loss and resilience. So, don’t expect much from the present day segments, but because I was moved by Rill and her story, I would still recommend this book.