CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — During a public discussion of her bestselling novel, “Before We Were Yours”, author Lisa Wingate last week showed how one immoral act can result in an emotional pain that lasts for generations.
Wingate brought the Friends of the Library’s 2019 Two Towns One Book program to a close with a reading and discussion of her book at the Gowana Middle School auditorium on the Shenendehowa School District campus.
The May 15 event drew 400 residents who sat spellbound as she slowly wove her way deep into the book’s fictionalized account of true life events surrounding stolen children in 1930s Memphis.
A former journalist and the author of 29 books before hitting it big with the 2017 Random House novel, Wingate knows not only how to tell a story but how to reveal the research behind that story to a crowd.
She has wanted to be an author since early in life; in Wingate’s case, it was first grade. However, after writing novels for 20 years she was still looking for that one book that would make her name recognized by a wider audience.
The book was not an instant hit. After it was purchased, published, and marketed by Random House “Before We Were Yours” faced tough competition from new works by big-name authors. It stalled just shy of the New York Times bestseller list, the writer’s Holy Grail.
“Eight weeks post-publication when no one thought it could be done this book crawled its way onto the Times’ Bestseller list and it stayed there over a year,” Wingate said. “It was all thanks to just folks; word of mouth. There is still tremendous power in word of mouth and this book is a testament to that.”
Before taking her audience back into time and the Foss family on their shantyboat along the Mississippi River, Wingate gave everyone a peek into her idyllic late 20th-century childhood in Oklahoma.
“Memphis is a river town and like many river towns it ebbs and flows along with the Mississippi River,” she said. “I didn’t grow up there, but where I did, we had a creek, one with steep banks and shady trees and for us kids that creek was the Nile [River], the Amazon [River], the Mississippi [River], any river or body of water we wanted it to be. Each summer we played there all day long reenacting any movie we had just seen.”
She described an era now seemingly far in the past where kids ran out the door in the morning and wouldn’t be expected home until supper. It was a time, she said, where no one locked their doors during the day and all the neighborhood kids piled into one of the homes for lunch.
“Down the banks of that creek was its own world for us,” Wingate said, “just like the kids who were living along the banks of the Mississippi in 1939.”
One of the book’s dual storylines follows the destruction of a family living along those river banks when the children are taken to the infamous Tennessee Children’s Home Society and later sold as orphans. The other follows the wealthy and comfortable granddaughter of one of those “orphans” as she traces her roots and finds the true story of her original family.
The novel is based on real-life events surrounding the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and its director Georgia Tann. In the 1930s and 1940s, many children were illegally declared orphans and given to Tann who sold them to unsuspecting adults as legitimate orphans complete with fake documents.
“How would you feel if you were 30 and couldn’t have kids and someone said to you, ‘Would you like a child? What gender would you like? What color hair? Do you want twins’,” Wingate asked. “And, if you didn’t like what you got, you could give them back.”
Speaking rhetorically Wingate asked where the children came from.
“You are unmarried, living in 1930s Tennessee and you can’t feed your child so you go and ask for help. They give you that help and ask you if you have any more [children],” she said. “You have fallen into the hands of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.”
Wingate said she came upon the real-life events for her story from a TV program.
“I was watching the Discovery Channel late one night and once it was over I heard these five kids speaking to me,” she said.
Audience questions focused mainly on the children and whether any of the “orphans” or their descendants have contacted her. Wingate said they have and one reunion has been held in Memphis and another is in the planning stages.
One of many local people who got Wingate to sign a copy of her book after the presentation was Two Towns One Book committee member Janet Colton.
“I like how she wove her personal history into the presentation, how she revealed her research, and how she came up with the idea in the first place,” she said.
Since her book made its way to the top of the bestseller list Wingate said her life has been crazy.
“The stars have to align to make a book go viral," she said. "Had this happened earlier, I would have missed my kids’ school plays, field trips, and all the baseball games. I was able to be there for that. Success makes you realize how busy and demanding this is, and had I had a number one book 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have been such good stuff, so it came at the right time.”