Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate

This novel is based on true events that actually boggle the mind of the modern reader. Georgia Tann was a prominent maven of Tennessee society who sought to better society through the adoption of poor, underprivileged children into wealthy socially-advantaged families. Operating during the distressed times of the 1930s Depression, she established the Tennessee Children’s Home Society which operated orphanages across Tennessee and Georgia. That good intention went badly awry, however, and many of the children who ended up in these orphanages were never actually given up for adoption by their birth families. Some were snatched up on their way home from school. Others were taken from parents who were conned into signing away their parental rights by promises that their children would be returned when the family could get back on their feet. When the parents tried to reclaim their children, adoptions had been finalized, names changed, and records sealed. All of that is true and it is a grisly story that continued for more than a decade.

Against this history, Wingate structures her novel in two voices. The voice of 12-year-old Rill in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939 alternates with that of Avery, a 30-something daughter of wealth and privilege in modern-day Aiken, South Carolina. Rill’s story moves us forward in time. Avery’s story ultimately unravels backward through the unsuspected secrets of her family,

Rill is the oldest of five children who were taken from their family’s vagabond houseboat on the Mississippi River when their father takes their mother to the hospital. Her story and the story of her siblings unfolds over a three-month period in alternating chapters of the book as Rill, rechristened May in the orphanage, fights to keep her sisters and brother with her.

In the interwoven story, Avery encounters a woman, May, in a nursing home who grabs her wrist and takes a bracelet that was given to Avery by her grandmother.  Avery’s grandmother is in the dementia unit of a different nursing home. As Avery retrieves her bracelet, she begins to talk with May and sees a photograph that looks suspiciously like one that her grandmother has. 

We see where this is going. And it does go there, at a fast tempo, and with some riveting scenes and phrases (such as fans trying to move humid summer air that has no desire to be moved). 

Our book club mostly enjoyed reading this book and it is indeed a good tale.  However, many thought the “Avery” story was too pat, too romance-novel-ish and used unnecessarily stereotyped characters, particularly Avery’s fiancé and the man who helps her unravel her family’s past. Our discussions of the book mostly centered around the character of Rill and her mighty efforts to save her siblings and their memories of their “real” parents; and around Georgia Tann, who died before she could be charged with the crimes she committed; and around our society’s changing views about adoption. The book did push us to consider what we might have done in the circumstances that confronted families in abject poverty during the Depression.  What might we have done to save our children? The scene where a father comes to the orphanage to reclaim his children and is told that they are already gone “to a better life,” is riveting. 

Review by Jeanie and Bill Smith

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess boys are brothers, Jim and Bob, raised in small town rural Maine. Jim is the older by five years, the golden boy, high school football quarterback, successful attorney, the shining example of what this small town has produced. Jim has a loving wife in Helen. Bob is affable and kind, but haunted enough by an unspoken-of accident that killed their father when he was four years old that he smokes too much and drinks too much. Bob’s marriage to Pam has ended and he is alone. Both have escaped Maine and live in New York. Bob is also an attorney, but a public defender.  Jim belittles Bob every time they are in contact. But Bob never reacts angrily or strikes back, either with words or with fists.

Yet there is another sibling. She is Susan, Bob’s twin sister, who has remained in their town of Shirley Falls. And it is in the crisis in Susan’s life that the story unfolds.  Susan has a troubled son, Zach, and he is in big trouble with the law. She calls her brothers for help.

There are others in Shirley Falls too. They are the Somali immigrants, welcomed by some, disdained by others, misunderstood by all. They dress differently, keep to themselves, worship in their make-shift mosque, speak only the most broken English. Their customs and ways do not fit the “melting pot” image of how immigrants are supposed to blend into the American culture. These Somalis have been deeply offended by Zach’s crime – he has thrown a pig’s head into their mosque.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is that the reader doesn’t really bond with any of the characters. Are any likeable? Well, not really, at least not through most of the book. Bob is the most likeable of the lot, but he  is such a wuss that he cheerfully accepts the verbal abuse of Jim and, as it turns out, of Susan. Jim is arrogant and mean. Susan is pitiful. Yet they and their story are compelling. I really cared about this family. How Strout has managed to do that is remarkable. This is a thoughtful portrayal of a family and how that family copes, or doesn’t cope, with tragedy and heartache. Strout has a keen eye for family dynamics, for the ways in which families create both walls and bridges. Her dialogue is rich.

As Jim’s life crumbles, as Bob’s life heals, as Susan’s and Zach’s lives move through this crisis, Strout unveils the bonds that are family despite everything. 

“What am I going to do, Bob?  I have no family.”

“You have family,” Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not too much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

And, ultimately, it is the Somali elder who saves Zach. Abdikarim, a man who has known both evil and fear, has seen not evil in Zach’s eyes, but fear. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, it is he who convinces the authorities to drop the charges against Zach. 

This novel is rich with nuance, both about families and how they function, but also about immigrants to the United States and the costs to them and their families as they blend and don’t blend into American culture. It is also rich with what and whom we don’t know. Bob and Jim have holes in what they know about each other and about their own past. The Maine natives don’t know the Somalis. Susan doesn’t know her son. The knowledge gaps are artfully revealed and ultimately that’s what links all the characters. As the prologue says, “Nobody ever knows anyone.”

Reviewed by Jeanie Smith

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett, by Annie Lyons

This book is utterly charming! I don’t know how the author manages to make a crusty, unfriendly old woman and a force-of-nature 10-year-old into such appealing people! They could so easily have come across as unlikeable or bratty… but they don’t.

Eudora is an 85-year-old English woman who is done with life. She has no relations and wants, very badly, to end her life on her own terms. She seeks out a clinic in Switzerland that has a program of assisted suicide to which she can apply. Meanwhile, her next door neighbor has moved out and sold the house to a young family. Ten-year-old Rose enters Eudora’s life and manages not only to be a friend to Eudora, but to think of Eudora as her own best friend.

The book is, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, simply charming. We see Rose and Eudora developing this most unlikely friendship in spite of Rose’s flamboyance which contradicts all of Eudora’s deeply held beliefs about proper attire and behavior. And in spite of Eudora’s persnickety reprovals of Rose’s ways. There are laugh-out-loud passages and others that just make you smile. 

If you’ve ever owned a cat, you might particularly enjoy Montgomery, Eudora’s cat.  When we first meet Montgomery, he is barely tolerant of Eudora, although she is the one who feeds and cares for him. This passage tells you all you need to know about their relationship at the beginning of the book:

“The cat plants himself with defiance across the top step. ’If you trip me up, there’ll be no one to feed you,’ she tells him. He stares up at her with momentary distaste, but seems to take the point, slinking down the stairs with practiced arrogance.”

But there is so much more to this book. In a series of short flashbacks woven throughout the basic story, we begin to understand why Eudora is the way she is, why she has no family, why some of Rose’s antics rub her decidedly the wrong way, why she’s so determined to end her life before her body deteriorates further. 

Ultimately, this is a book about death and about what makes a good death. And it’s about true friendship that transcends differences of age, of point-of-view, of time and place. It’s a great read!

–Jeanie Smith