Before We Were Yours Book Review

“Before We Were Yours,” authored by the accomplished Lisa Wingate, is a profound narrative of heartbreak, hope, and uncovering forgotten histories.

Wingate, renowned for her dynamic storytelling and intricate character development, has here ventured into a shocking segment of American history, resulting in a work that is both revealing and deeply moving.

This review will offer an in-depth analysis of the novel, focusing on its plot, characters, themes, and historical and cultural significance.

Lisa Wingate’s impressive literary portfolio stretches over thirty novels, each beautifully blending elements of Southern stories, mystery, and history.

However, it’s “Before We Were Yours” that stands out as a defining piece in her collection, a novel that showcases her meticulous research skills and empathetic approach to the stories of those who often go unheard.

The book told through a dual timeline narrative, captivates the readers, navigating them through a deeply emotional journey of uncovering buried family secrets and their implications on our present lives.


The foundation of “Before We Were Yours” is grounded in a chilling episode of American history: the infamous operations of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society run by Georgia Tann.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Tann orchestrated the kidnapping of countless children from their birth families, often under the guise of welfare checks, only to sell them to wealthy families eager to adopt.

This dark chapter obscured for many years, is not commonly known, yet its repercussions echo across generations.

The novel brings this appalling scandal to light, setting its historical narrative in 1939, along the Mississippi River, and focusing on the lives of the Foss children, who become the unsuspecting victims of Tann’s nefarious operations.

The narrative then alternates to present-day South Carolina, where Avery Stafford, a successful federal prosecutor, stumbles upon a family secret that eventually leads her to the story of the Foss children.

The dual timeline employed by Wingate offers an intriguing juxtaposition: one timeline uncovers a nearly forgotten injustice, and the other reveals how this history when brought to light, can unsettle our present.

It not only creates suspense and piques the reader’s curiosity, but it also offers a poignant commentary on the lasting impacts of such traumatic experiences.

The two storylines, though separated by time, interweave seamlessly, eventually converging in a narrative that is both revealing and compelling.

The book’s setting is integral to its plot, shaping the characters’ lives and experiences.

The rich detailing of the Mississippi River life in the 1930s provides a stark contrast to Avery’s world of political galas and societal expectations in modern-day South Carolina.

These vividly described settings, while markedly different, equally pull the reader into the narrative, making the unraveling of the story all the more gripping.

Summary of the Plot

“Before We Were Yours” moves back and forth between two distinct yet intertwined narratives.

The first, set in the 1930s, follows the heartrending story of the five Foss children; Rill, Camellia, Lark, Fern, and Gabion; who are abducted from their humble yet happy life aboard their family’s shanty boat on the Mississippi River.

Rill, the eldest, who is just twelve at the time, finds herself suddenly responsible for her younger siblings as they navigate the nightmare of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

In parallel, the novel tells the story of Avery Stafford, a federal prosecutor from a prominent political family in present-day South Carolina.

Avery’s world is thrown into confusion when a chance encounter with an elderly woman in a nursing home causes her to question her family’s history and her own identity.

As she digs deeper into her family’s past, she uncovers a connection to the Foss children, one that will change her understanding of her family, and herself, forever.

The two narratives are masterfully intertwined, each propelling the other forward.

As we uncover the tragic events of Rill’s past, we also follow Avery’s journey of discovery in the present, leading to a satisfying conclusion that ties the two stories together.

Character Analysis

“Before We Were Yours” is rich in character development, which serves to pull the reader into the story and engage with the personal journeys of each character.

The characters of Rill and Avery are particularly noteworthy, serving as the central figures in their respective timelines.

Rill Foss, who begins as a free-spirited twelve-year-old living a simple life on the river, is thrust into a role of responsibility and hardship when she and her siblings are taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Despite the adversity she faces, Rill’s strength, determination, and deep love for her siblings never wane.

She is a symbol of resilience and sacrifice, a character who remains imprinted in readers’ minds long after they’ve turned the last page.

On the other hand, Avery Stafford is a complex character navigating a privileged world marked by societal expectations and political ambition.

A chance encounter leads her on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the family and life she’s always known.

Avery’s character grows throughout the book as she grapples with uncovering a painful family secret and dealing with its implications.

The supporting characters in both timelines also play pivotal roles, each contributing to the overall narrative and shedding light on the wider issues at play.

From the other children at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society to Avery’s influential family, each character has a part to play in this compelling tale.

Wingate’s ability to craft such well-rounded characters allows readers to connect emotionally with the story, creating an engaging narrative that highlights the personal aspect of a broad historical event.


The novel adeptly intertwines several recurring themes that resonate deeply with readers, enriching the narrative and adding layers of meaning to the story.

Family and Identity: At its core, “Before We Were Yours” is a story about family – both the one we’re born into and the one we choose.

The book raises questions about how our families shape our identities, seen starkly through Rill’s struggle to maintain her identity while fighting to keep her siblings together, and Avery’s quest to understand her family’s hidden past.

The theme of identity is closely tied to the theme of family, exploring how the connections we have with our families and our past can shape who we are.

Truth and Justice: Another theme that is evident throughout the novel is the quest for truth and justice.

This is seen in Avery’s relentless pursuit of the truth about her family’s past, as well as in the wider narrative about the historical wrongs done by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

The novel poses questions about the moral obligations to uncover and rectify past wrongs, adding a dimension of ethical contemplation to the story.

The Impact of the Past on the Present: The book’s dual timeline structure underscores the influence of past events on present lives.

It delves into how secrets from the past can unravel our present and how confronting those secrets can lead to healing and reconciliation.

Wingate’s Writing Style

Lisa Wingate’s writing style in “Before We Were Yours” is remarkable in its capacity to engage readers and evoke deep emotional responses.

The prose is both poignant and evocative, capturing the heartrending experiences of the Foss children and the emotional journey of Avery Stafford with sensitivity and depth.

Her adept use of the dual timeline structure keeps the reader engaged and intrigued throughout.

By juxtaposing past and present, Wingate not only enhances the narrative tension but also effectively underscores the enduring impact of past events on current lives.

Wingate’s vivid description of settings from the simple life on the Mississippi River to the polished world of South Carolina’s political elite is particularly striking.

Her ability to paint a vivid picture enables readers to fully immerse themselves in the different worlds inhabited by the characters.

Furthermore, her deep and compassionate exploration of her characters’ inner lives contributes to the overall emotional depth of the novel.

Wingate’s characters are not mere representations of the past; they are complex, well-drawn individuals whose experiences feel both unique and universal.

Her skill in character portrayal enables readers to empathize with the characters and invest in their journeys.

The combination of these stylistic elements creates a compelling narrative that is as engaging as it is meaningful, a testament to Wingate’s talent as a writer and storyteller.

Personal Reaction and Evaluation

“Before We Were Yours” is a novel that leaves a profound impact. Wingate masterfully weaves a narrative that is both compelling and emotionally resonant.

The story is undeniably heartbreaking, exploring a dark and largely overlooked chapter of history.

Yet, amidst the tragedy, the novel carries an undercurrent of hope, resilience, and the power of familial bonds, which leaves an indelible mark on the reader.

The characters in the story are remarkably well-developed.

Rill Foss, with her undying spirit and determination, stands out as an unforgettable protagonist.

Avery Stafford’s journey of self-discovery and her pursuit of truth adds a layer of suspense and intrigue to the narrative.

The supporting characters, too, add depth and color to the story, each contributing to the book’s emotional weight.

Wingate’s writing style and narrative structure play a significant role in making this novel an engaging read.

The dual timeline adds a layer of complexity and suspense to the story, while the vivid descriptions of the settings create an immersive reading experience.

The prose is beautifully written, with each sentence carrying a weight of emotion that draws the reader deeper into the story.

The Novel’s Relevance and Impact

“Before We Were Yours” is a work of historical fiction that illuminates a shocking chapter of American history, thereby demonstrating the power of literature to educate and inform.

By shedding light on the scandalous operations of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Wingate prompts readers to reflect on the past and consider its implications for the present.

The book’s exploration of themes like family, identity, and the quest for truth gives it a universal relevance.

These themes resonate with readers of all backgrounds, encouraging them to reflect on their own families, histories, and identities.

The impact of “Before We Were Yours” extends beyond the pages of the book.

It has sparked conversations about history, justice, and the importance of acknowledging past wrongs.

By shedding light on a forgotten scandal, Wingate reminds us of the importance of remembering and learning from history.

In the realm of historical fiction, “Before We Were Yours” stands out as a significant contribution.

Through compelling storytelling, complex characters, and thoughtful exploration of themes, Wingate has created a novel that is not just enjoyable to read, but also offers valuable insights and prompts reflection on important issues.

Audience Recommendation

“Before We Were Yours” is a moving and significant novel that can be appreciated by a wide audience.

Fans of historical fiction will particularly enjoy how Wingate sheds light on an overlooked chapter of American history.

The book’s dual narrative structure and mystery at its core will also appeal to readers who enjoy suspense and crime novels.

Moreover, the novel’s exploration of universal themes like family, identity, and truth makes it a compelling read for anyone interested in stories about personal discovery and the human condition.

It’s a book that will appeal to those who appreciate character-driven narratives and stories that prompt reflection on broader societal issues.

However, given the sometimes dark and traumatic experiences that the characters go through, readers should be prepared for an emotional reading experience.

While this is a testament to Wingate’s skill in drawing the reader into the narrative, it’s something potential readers should be aware of.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, “Before We Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate is a deeply moving and thought-provoking novel. Wingate skillfully intertwines two narratives, one historical and the other contemporary, to create a story that is both engaging and emotionally resonant.

Through vividly drawn characters and an exploration of universal themes, she delivers a powerful novel that leaves a lasting impact on the reader.

“Before We Were Yours” is more than just a compelling work of historical fiction. It’s a testament to the enduring power of family, the shaping force of our identities, and the importance of acknowledging and learning from the past.

Wingate has created a remarkable narrative that is as insightful as it is captivating, a book that reminds us of the strength of the human spirit and resilience in the face of adversity.

Whether you are a fan of historical fiction, enjoy suspenseful storytelling, or appreciate books that prompt you to think more deeply about societal issues, “Before We Were Yours” is a must-read.

It’s a novel that is sure to engage, enlighten, and deeply move you, leaving you with much to reflect upon long after you have turned the last page.

Our Rating

When it comes to rating “Before We Were Yours,” several aspects of the book merit consideration.

Storytelling and Plot: Wingate’s ability to weave a captivating story around a little-known historical event is commendable.

The dual narrative structure adds a layer of suspense, and the intertwining plotlines are brilliantly executed.

This aspect of the book deserves a 4.5 out of 5.

Character Development: The characters are well-drawn and emotionally engaging.

The readers get to journey alongside them, feeling their triumphs, their sorrows, their hopes, and fears.

Each character adds depth to the story, making the reading experience more immersive.

This earns the book a 4.5 out of 5.

Writing Style: Wingate’s writing style is evocative and emotionally resonant.

The vivid descriptions and the compassionate exploration of the characters’ inner lives contribute significantly to the overall narrative.

This deserves a 4.5 out of 5.

Themes and Relevance: The themes explored in “Before We Were Yours” are universal and relevant.

They provoke thought and encourage readers to reflect on societal issues and personal identities.

The historical significance and the lessons drawn from it enhance the book’s overall impact, warranting a score of 5 out of 5.

Emotional Impact: “Before We Were Yours” delivers a strong emotional punch.

While this enhances the reading experience, it may be heavy for some readers.

Yet, it underscores the real-life tragedies endured by many children at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, making it a vital aspect of the book.

This merits a 4 out of 5.

Averaging these scores, “Before We Were Yours” receives an overall rating of 4.5 out of 5.

It is a compelling, emotionally resonant novel that effectively blends historical and contemporary narratives to shed light on a dark chapter of American history while delivering a powerful story about family, identity, and resilience.

This high rating reflects the quality of Wingate’s storytelling, her skillful character development, and the book’s thematic depth.

We hope our comprehensive review has covered everything you were looking for. If it hasn’t, you can read further reviews on Amazon.