Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours

by

Lisa Wingate

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Before We Were Yours Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Lisa Wingate's Before We Were Yours. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Lisa Wingate

Lisa Wingate was born in Germany in 1965, but was raised in Oklahoma after her family moved to the U.S. Wingate developed a love of writing as a young child when her first-grade teacher told her that her name would be in a magazine one day. From that point on, Wingate’s love for storytelling and writing turned into a passion. She went on to earn a B.A. in technical English but didn’t begin her career as a novelist until 2001 when she published her first book, Tending Roses. Since then, Wingate has published over 30 novels and novellas that have been translated into over 40 languages for publication all over the world. Additionally, Wingate’s works have received a number of nominations and awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, the Oklahoma Book Award, and the Goodreads Choice Award. Before We Were Yours is Wingate’s most well-known and widely praised novel; it spent over one year on the New York Times Bestseller List and won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction. Wingate married her husband Sam in 1988 and the couple has two sons together. Wingate lives on her family’s farm in Texas.
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Historical Context of Before We Were Yours

The events in Before We Were Yours begin in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout most of the ‘30s, the Great Depression forced millions of Americans out of work and out of their homes. For many people living in the states along the Mississippi River—including Queenie and Briny Foss—living on a shanty boat was an ideal solution because they could quickly travel from one city to the next to find work with their families. Still, poverty was rampant and work opportunities were scarce, so these shanty-boat families struggled to get by. However, some people thrived during the Great Depression, including Georgia Tann, who also existed in real life. Between 1924 and 1950 when the Tennessee Children’s Home Society closed, Tann trafficked over 5,000 children using fraudulent adoption papers and with the help of some of Memphis, Tennessee’s family court judges. In most cases, Tann did not run background checks on adoptive parents and she favored out-of-state adoptions because they allowed her to charge exorbitant fees. Because Tann would give children to whomever could pay these fees, many out-of-state celebrities and even politicians used Tann’s services. These include Joan Crawford (who was actually denied a petition for adoption in California because of her lifestyle and multiple failed marriages), Dick Powell, and Ric Flair. To meet the demand for children, Tann began kidnapping children from the lower classes or using scare tactics to force single mothers to give up their babies. The children under Tann’s care were frequently neglected, sexually and physically abused, and even starved to death for not following the rules. Nobody knows how many children died (either from illness, forced starvation, or abuse) in Tann’s care, but it’s estimated that the number could be as high as 500. An investigation into the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Tann began in late 1950, but Tann died before charges were filed.

Other Books Related to Before We Were Yours

In Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate tells half of the story through the eyes of a child, Rill Foss. Other works of Southern Gothic fiction that are told from the perspective of a child include Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina follows the childhood experiences of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright. Like Rill, Bone is the oldest child in her lower-class family in the South and she does her best to take care of her younger siblings even in the face of unimaginable abuse and terror. For a work of Southern fiction with a child narrator and a much happier ending, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the perspective of a young girl named Scout Finch as she comes of age in Maycomb, Alabama; like Before We Were Yours, the events of To Kill a Mockingbird also take place during the Great Depression. Rill Foss and her siblings love their life on the Mississippi River and find joy even while they’re in one of Georgia Tann’s orphanages by reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is about a young boy’s own adventures on the Mississippi River. For a book with a more modern setting that also focuses on orphans struggling to make sense of their identities, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go follows the lives of three friends who question where they came from and whether they have any ties to the outside world—although instead of wondering where their parents are, they wonder who they were cloned from. For more information about the nefarious Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Lisa Wingate and Judy Christie co-authored a nonfiction book titled Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.  
Key Facts about Before We Were Yours
  • Full Title: Before We Were Yours
  • When Written: 2017
  • Where Written: U.S.
  • When Published: 2017
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical Fiction; Southern Gothic fiction
  • Setting: Memphis, Tennessee and Aiken, South Carolina
  • Climax: Avery Stafford finds out that Judy Stafford is one of the twins born to Queenie Foss and sold by Georgia Tann.
  • Antagonist: Georgia Tann
  • Point of View: First Person with multiple narrators

Extra Credit for Before We Were Yours

Picking Favorites. Lisa Wingate’s first novel, Tending Roses, was based on a story her grandmother told Wingate’s first son shortly after his birth. Even after publishing dozens of works since her first novel, Lisa says Tender Roses remains her favorite.

Olympic Dreams. Although Lisa Wingate has always loved writing and storytelling, one of her earliest dreams was to be an Olympic gymnast. However, her dream was cut short by her crippling fear of performing backflips on the balance beam.