Author: Lisa Wingate
Genre: Historical Fiction
Two stories are intertwined in this 2017 novel. The first, from 1939, is told from a child’s point of view. She is Rill Floss, one of five siblings of a poor, riverboat family from the Memphis, TN, area. Floss and her siblings are abducted and brought to an orphanage, where the atmosphere is abusive and care is virtually nonexistent. The orphanage is basically a storage home for children who will be adopted out to wealthy families for a high price.
The second story, a contemporary one, is told by Avery Stafford, a young woman who is a lawyer and daughter of a U.S. senator from South Carolina. With her grandmother in dementia care, Stafford searches for the answers to questions that arise when her visit to another woman in a retirement home raises Stafford’s curiosity about whether the two older women might have known each other.
The bulk of the novel follows Floss and her siblings through the orphanage and beyond. The details and events are sometimes heartbreaking, but Floss’ determination to be reunited with her parents is unshakable. The story is particularly difficult to read when we realize the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was a real place, run by Georgia Tann, who ran an “adoption” ring from the 1920s through 1950. In her care, some children died or disappeared while the lucky ones were “sold” to rich families. The adoption records were sealed until 1995. Tann died shortly after the scandal broke and hit the newspapers and the courts. Curiously, for more background, I read in the note from the author of the book that this sad episode in our history was more recently covered by the television shows Unsolved Mysteries and 60 Minutes.
Floss’ portions of the story are moving and powerful and give us a picture of life in that portion of the south in 1939. The descriptions of people and places, both clear and detailed, make the story vivid as well as believable. Lisa Wingate’s writing is good, and the plot moves along at a pace that keeps the reader interested.
Floss’ story would be very worth reading on its own, but it is interspersed with Stafford’s tale as well. Stafford’s portion of the book is added to give us a character in the present time who is uncovering the sad facts about the adoptions, unraveling a mystery for us, and making it more personal. While it is clear from early in the novel that some characters in both stories must be the same or at least know each other, the detective work to put the pieces together is Stafford’s personal mission. She is not only interested in the mystery itself, but she also has to find out if there is a hint of scandal in her family tree that must be discovered and possibly re-buried to protect her family’s reputation and their Southern as well as political status. Along the way, her story veers close to a romance, but setting that aside, her uncovering of the mystery is necessary to give some contemporary context to the historical events.
This book is an easy read and a good story. Most readers who posted about it gave it four stars, and I am inclined to agree. And at under 400 pages, with the factual, historical basis for the story, it would make a good read for a book club.