Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.
Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family's long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.
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A few years ago we read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, which follows the story of a young girl sent from New York to the Midwest on one of the infamous trains. It was hard hitting, revealing some very unpleasant truths about the experiences of the orphans being shipped to supposedly better lives. If anything, Before We Were Yours was even more shocking, because of the motivations of the person responsible for the Foss children’s plight: Georgia Tann. In Orphan Train, the basic reason for the relocation of the children was to provide them with homes and families when overcrowded cities were overwhelmed by poverty and disease. Whilst this was also Georgia Tann’s stated motivation, she was much more interested in profit and self-aggrandizement.
Looking at the cover, it seems that the Foss children will be a little sad to pack up their things and leave home. This could not be further from the truth. Their mother is struggling to deliver twins and their father rushes her away to a hospital, leaving Rill in charge of her younger siblings. Next morning they are forcibly removed from their home by a group of policemen and placed in a children’s home that is run with all the care and attention of a Nazi concentration camp. They are given new names and told that they will be returned to their parents in a few days. However, it soon becomes clear that they will never go home and that they are to be sold to whomever wants them, assuming that they even survive their time in the home.
Rill desperately tries to keep her family together and safe, whilst planning a way for them to escape. Unfortunately, although Rill and three of her siblings are blonde, blue-eyed and fairly placid, Camellia is dark-haired, dark-eyed and violently uncooperative. In Georgia Tann’s eyes, this makes Camellia virtually impossible to place and it is little surprise that she is not shown to prospective parents. It may also be the reason why she is targeted by the grounds man, who repeatedly tries to bribe the children with candy and attempts to get into their locked room at night. Rill is warned to keep away from him, but Camellia refuses to be cautious and one day she is assaulted by him. The trauma causes her to become violent when bath time comes around and she is sent to be tied up in the ‘closet’ for punishment. We never see or hear from her again. As Rill’s other siblings are sold off one by one, she despairs of ever seeing any of them again. Eventually, she is homed with one of her younger sisters, who creates too much trouble for her new parents and refuses to cooperate until reunited with Rill. She is handed over to the father in a hotel room, where he is assured that she is a virgin and biddable and that he can now do whatever he wants with her.
Yes, that is correct: the children’s home turns a blind eye to a pedophile grounds man and uses extreme physical punishment on children that have been stolen from their parents. Some of the children even die in their custody with no consequences. The children routinely have their names changed, are separated from their siblings and may be sold to pedophiles, no questions asked. One might think that the author is doing a massive disservice to the people at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society by portraying them as such uncaring and abusive guardians. However, it is clear from reading The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond that Ms Wingate actually toned down some of the abuse reported by Georgia Tann’s victims.
It seems that Georgia Tann saw an opportunity to create a new business supplying children, particularly babies, to couples seeking to adopt. At the time, this was done on a local level, with most unwanted or orphaned children being raised by friends, family members or church organizations. However, increasing urbanization brought massive epidemics and such ad hoc welfare provision was quickly overwhelmed, providing a source of potential adoptees. At the same time it became more acceptable for childless couples to adopt unrelated children, thus providing a demand. Unfortunately, Ms Tann’s actions did not match her stated aims. She used threats, blackmail and ‘gifts’ of children to buy influence with city and state officials, even earning the protection of the local crime leaders. Thus she could operate without fear of interference.
Ms Tann employed a large group of ‘spotters’ amongst the city’s police, teaching and medical professions. They would identify possible adoptees and she would move swiftly to take them to one of the numerous homes that kept her ‘stock’ before sale. Children were stolen from their homes or the streets, parents were tricked or coerced into signing away their rights and healthy babies were declared dead by corrupt nurses. Once in her ‘care’ these children were routinely given new identities, complete with different birth dates to make them appear younger and, therefore, more advanced for their supposed age. They were often given false histories, making them the illegitimate children of wealthy, highly educated parents or unfortunate orphans from good families that had no family remaining to raise them.
But, I hear you say; surely she was doing a good thing in providing good homes for underprivileged children. If only that was true. She had no interest in vetting prospective parents as long as they could pay her fees. Children were regularly placed with abusive families or used as child slaves on farms and many were sent out of state. Once adopted, Ms Tann’s only interest in the adoptees would be if she thought that she could extort extra cash from the parents, some of whom were very rich and famous.
Of course, as we see in this book, some of the adoptees were lucky enough to find wonderful parents who were loving and supportive. However, even these children suffered at the hands of Georgia Tann because she stole their pasts from them. Even if they were not stolen or given up by unwilling parents, her habits of changing identities and then destroying her records meant that many of the children could never uncover their true identities. Some, like the stolen babies, had no memory of their previous lives, but others could remember parents and siblings lost because of Ms Tann. Many have spent their whole lives trying to reconnect with that past or have been driven to depression and suicide by the trauma of what was done to them.
There is no doubt that adoption has serious implications for the psychological well-being of the adoptee, but to make it almost impossible for them to gather important information about their family’s identity or medical history must make it even worse. The families destroyed for Georgia Tann’s greed are rightfully furious about her actions. She did suffer a little for her behavior before she died, as she was being investigated for tax evasion at the time of her death, but her victims never saw her brought to justice. It is also very sad that, as a founder of the adoption ‘business’, her practices influenced the way in which adoptions were conducted for the next fifty years or more, and it is only now that adoptee-rights groups are forcing the states to open their records to adult adoptees.
As you can see, this book is a sad and depressing read in some ways, but in others it is massively life affirming. Whilst not all of Rill’s siblings have known or happy endings, some of them do and we see them trying to reestablish the connections that they lost at the hands of a greedy person who treated them like commodities. We enjoyed this exploration of a subject that needs to be aired much more publicly and thoroughly recommend it.