Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate

Book: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate, 2017

What if you had only two choices in life? Continue to reside with your loving poverty-stricken family, or, be uprooted into a wealthy home where all your material needs will be provided for, plus some love?

In, Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate brings into focus a question that has never ceased to taunt society – what factors help make one a better parent? Is it pregnancy and birthing processes, or anyone who can provide for the basic needs of a child?

The main story in the book centers on the life of Rill, an eleven-year old, who after her mother is boated across a river to give birth to twins in a hospital, is left in charge of her four younger siblings. Rill feels obligated after her father asked her to keep the family together while he accompanied his wife whose life hung on a string on that stormy night.

Rill is thrown into a turbulent world. One part is from high waves threatening to sweep their shanty water-house off the Mississippi River. The second threat is from the people who raid the house and take the five children away to ‘visit their parents in hospital.’ Rill must consider a critical question, stay at their new residence to have all her siblings together, or risk an escape which could result in unfathomable punishment for her younger siblings?

The author uses two families who are in desperate situations, (one living below the poverty line, and another in wealth but struggling to hold onto a political seat, a dynasty) to illustrate the search for identity and meaning by both the rich poor in society.

Lisa uses Rill to introduce readers to what it meant to be poor in then America. She also uses Avery to unveil the predatory world of politics where families pay for whatever it takes to ensure posterity, keep their own in power. Read on, not all is lost, there are sprinklings of good people within each rotten segment of society – how else would Rill manage to stay afloat?

What kept me reading the book?

I almost gave up in the first quarter because of the suffering of children, afraid that reading on would reveal more vices that I had no way to make right. But then, if I stopped reading, I would have to return the book to the library immediately. What would I tell the librarian who had reminded me that the book was a hot hit, a one-week item? After much reflection, I decided better to read on, learn what happens to Rill, her siblings and parents.

The author’s writing style pulled me in. Her expertise on the show don’t tell, especially of the seemingly small everyday acts that people do, absentmindedly, while they perform what society considers important tasks.

Lisa’s descriptions make each character real, someone I would encounter within society. The author effortlessly uses nature-based similes (weather, birds, trees, river, and flowers) to bring out inner feelings of characters in the story. Her vivid descriptions of characters and settings pulled me into the story and held me there, like I had already traveled thousands of kilometres, no way would I want to go back without hearing the full story. Many a time, I forgot I was within my house, the writer transported me to somewhere else, down the Mississippi, to Memphis.

The journey of Rill is depressing and heartening all at once. Her journey helps bring forth how children reason before they make certain decisions – they are very observant, they analyze different scenarios and reach a decision well ahead of adults. For example, when Rill finds Camellia in hiding after she’d be deflowered by Riggs, Rill quickly reflects on different possibilities: “I also know that if we tell, he will make my sister fall out of a tree and hit her head. Maybe he will even do the same to me. Then, who’ll take care of the babies?” (Page 158).

Through the character of Rill, Lisa communicates a message on the source of wisdom. While Rill uses her wit, acquired from her constant involvement with the day-to-day livelihood tasks of her family from a younger age, we see Avery reaching certain decisions only after referencing her legal training.

I recommend Before We Were Yours to anyone who has doubts on the ‘will and cleverness’ hidden in the small bodies of children. The book is also relevant to readers looking to empathize with children from wealthy families as well. Such children do not have it all nice as the outside world assumes. If they did, Avery would be content with her life, get married to the person her family prefers and follow her father’s career path - the rich also struggle.

Lingering questions

  1. What’s the importance of closure in society’s well being? Is it easy for an individual to lead a normal life without first finding closure about their loved ones? If Rill had not escaped back to the “Kingdom of Arcadia,” and witnessed its final minutes, would she have grown to become what she turned into as an adult?

  2. Utopia? Is that the place where poor people prefer to spend their time, wishing for a better tomorrow even when the necessary action is lacking? What type of Utopia do rich people harbour when they resist to know the truth, preferring to enjoy a temporary life they have built, like the houses along the Mississippi River.

  3. Is blood still thicker than water? The Sevier couple searched for Rill and Fern in the surrounding waters and gave up after a while, without reporting to authorities. Do you think Briny and Queenie, the birth parents had ever given up the search for their children?

    Is it possible that Rill’s story lasts for only months and not years? Narrations of their many relocations would have fitted better into a longer time period – especially when we encounter birthdays, yet learn that not twelve months have passed.

  4. I am still trying to create an image in my mind of this eleven or twelve year-old Rill, balancing two younger siblings on either side of her waist. I know adults do it with ease, but such a young girl?

  5. Did you find yourself expending too much energy for a successful transition as the two stories, of Rill and Avery interchange from one chapter to a later one? On the other hand, this type of separation by chapters helps a ready follow events in bits, not swamped with all the information on two different families living many decades apart.

Overall, I found the book informative and entertaining, with many moral lessons shared. Before We Were Yours is professionally edited, thus, gave me no reason to pause from reading. The author’s use of first-person PoV makes the story more personal, helped me take the journey with the narrator, captured my sympathy, better than if they had used a third-person PoV.

The use of suspense at the end of each chapter kept me interested enough to open the next page, next chapter until I opened the last page of the book six days later. Of Course, this was in between my regular life of work, in between cooking and eating meals.

Lisa makes the fictional book more relatable by providing a list of further-reading resources at the end of the book.

I give the book four-point-eight stars, a good read towards a better comprehension on the question of lost children in our society.

Thanks for reading this book review. I endeavour to write a review on the books that capture my interest. Please recommend books for me to read.

Eileen Omosa.Comment