49 pages 1 hour read

Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


A 2017 New York Times bestseller, Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours is a haunting and compelling work of historical fiction told in polyvocal form with two alternating principle voices narrating a story of complex family history. From chapter to chapter, the book goes back and forth between present day South Carolina (in settings of Southern power and prestige) and Tennessee in the late 1930s and early 1940s (in settings of squalor and abuse). In attempting to map out a family’s history, the novel also reads as an engaging mystery with a smart, soulful young lawyer leading the detective work, hunting to learn the full truth of her now senile grandmother’s life.

Plot Summary

The book begins on a note of ambiguity, with an unspecified voice narrating a scene that they admit is only a guess, a wistful imagining. From there, we go on to present day to meet brisk and efficient Avery, daughter of a powerful senator, whose life is on track to marry the right man and have a high-profile law career. Her father’s recent cancer diagnosis has her on edge, and she is trying to sort out what matters most to her. Family takes precedence even over work and time spent with her fiancé, Elliot

In addition to her father’s considerable health challenges, Avery is lamenting her Grandma Judy’s advancing dementia. Despite their close emotional ties, she feels as though her grandmother is slipping away from her. A chance encounter with an elderly resident in a nursing home who pilfers Avery’s dragonfly bracelet ultimately leads Avery to explore her grandmother’s life in a new light. While Grandma Judy drifts between past and present in her mind, she drops tantalizing clues about a secret identity. Avery decides to explore these clues, which ultimately lead her away from Elliot and her duties to her political family and into the company of Trent Turner, who holds some answers about Grandma Judy’s life and helps Avery find out more.

Avery eventually learns that her grandmother, a renowned Southern society lady and mother to a Senator, was really one of seven children born to an indigent couple who lived on a shantyboat on the Mississippi River. While Queenie, Grandma Judy’s mother, was recovering from birthing her, all of her children were stolen from her and placed in an abusive orphanage, the Tennessee Children’s Society Home, where they were eventually brokered off to rich families. The only child not sold away to the highest bidder was the only sibling without a headful of golden curls. It took Grandma Judy years to discover the location of three of her sisters, and she never reunited with her lost brothers. The missing siblings remained present with the sisters in the form of the dragonfly bracelets each wore.

The other half of the story is told by Rill Foss, the eldest daughter of Queenie and Briny Foss who already have five children at the start of the novel. Queenie is expecting two more, a pair of twins (one of which will be Grandma Judy). Rill is charged with caring for her younger siblings when Queenie’s labor becomes complicated and the midwife insists that she must be taken to the hospital. Briny is reluctant to leave the shantyboat and trust the people on land but decides to in the company of Zede, the river gypsy doctor who leaves an orphan, Silas, to help Rill tend to the little ones. 

Thinking he is signing a form to pay the hospital bill, Briny inadvertently signs his children away, and they are rounded up by workers at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, which is run by the ruthless Miss Tann. At the home, the children are abused emotionally and physically. One by one, they are given new names, and adoptions with wealthy families are arranged. Camellia, the brunette sister who resists Miss Tann at every step, disappears and is rumored to have been murdered, her body dumped into the river.

Rill watches all her siblings leave her for good except Fern, whose adoptive parents return to adopt Rill as well. They treat the girls kindly, but Rill cannot give up hope of returning to her birth parents. She and Fern runaway, back to the family shantyboat, the Arcadia, only to find out that their mother is deceased and their father is constantly drunk. Due to Briny’s drunken carelessness, the boat crashes and catches fire. He goes down with the boat in flame, but the girls are saved. At that point, Rill knows she must become her new name—May—and accept this new life. But she never forgets her parents or her siblings and stays connected with her sisters even into her old age.

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