Before We Were Yours is a moving, fascinating portrayal of an upper class Southern family dealing with dementia care, cancer, secrets and a family in 1939 ripped apart just because they live on the river. Have your Kleenex ready and Google pulled up. This novel presents many topics to discuss for book groups.
Dual timelines tell the story of Avery Stafford digging into her Grandma Judy’s past. A woman named May Crandall approaches Avery at a nursing home event, confusing her for someone named Fern and slipping Avery’s bracelet off. When Avery returns the next day to retrieve the bracelet, a treasured family heirloom, she finds a photograph of a man and woman who look exactly like her Grandma. Avery starts digging to explain who the people in the photograph are and why May thinks her name is Fern.
Rill Foss tells the story of living with her parents and four siblings on a shanty boat on the Mississippi River near Memphis in 1939. When Queenie, Rill’s mother, goes to the hospital to deliver twins the children stay home alone. The police arrive early the next morning taking the children to a warehouse in Memphis where they meet a woman named Georgia Tann. The children are now wards of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The children’s blonde curls and beautiful smiles impress Tann, because she knows they will find new families in no time and she can charge a high price for them. Rill does not understand why they need new families or where her parents are.
Midway through reading this novel, I started reading more about the real-life Georgia Tann. This research led me to a shocking piece of American history. The real horrors of Georgia Tann and her adoption scheme at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society are worse than any fictional story. From 1924-1950 more than 500 children and infants died in the care of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The home routinely starves the children and drugs them to keep them quiet. Tann and her workers stole more than 5,000 children from their parents. A common deception at the hospital had nurses telling mothers their child died at birth, sign these papers and this ordeal is over, in truth they were signing over custody. Another common technique was to find families applying for aid or divorce. Tann’s stooges would then go to the house and take the children.
Any poor person with children was in danger because Tann did not believe they could properly care for their children and they did not have the money to try to recover them. Tann’s operation adopted children to families in every state, Canada, and England. Judges, city clerks, officials, police officers, hospital workers, and even the corrupt mayor, Boss Crump were part of Tann’s scheme to find and sell children. There were no requirements for adoptive parents; anyone who could pay got a child.
Tann purposefully changed names, birth dates and sealed all documents so the children and parents could never reunite. The legacy of sealed documents and adoption secrecy continues today. Tennessee’s adoption records remained sealed until 1996, however without knowing their birth name or birthday it was difficult for families to reunite. Many parents died before finding their children.
Duran, G. (2018). How Georgia Tann Stole and Sold 5,000 Babies In the Black Market. Retrieved from https://allthatsinteresting.com/georgia-tann
Raymond, B. B. (2008). The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller who Corrupted Adoption. New York, NY: Union Square Press.
60 Minutes, produced by Howard, J. (1992). Tennessee Children's Home Scandal. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaiRYfhvj0k