For more than 30 years, Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption orgnisation, kidnapped and sold poor children to the wealthy, including the unwitting Hollywood stars Joan Crawford and Lana Turner.
Best-selling author Lisa Wingate uses this real-life scandal as the backdrop for her tightly written new novel, Before We Were Yours. It tells the riveting, and ultimately uplifting tale of Avery Stafford, a lawyer from a prominent South Carolina family, interwoven with that of Rill Foss, the eldest of five children who were taken from their parents’ boat by Tann’s unscrupulous children’s home.
Here’s an extract, courtesy of HQ Fiction.
August 3, 1939
My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon. The room takes life only in my imaginings.
It is large most days when I conjure it. The walls are white and clean, the bed linens crisp as a fallen leaf. The private suite has the very nest of everything. Outside, the breeze is weary, and the cicadas throb in the tall trees, their verdant hiding places just below the window frames.
The screens sway inward as the attic fan rattles overhead, pulling at wet air that has no desire to be moved.
The scent of pine wafts in, and the woman’s screams press out as the nurses hold her fast to the bed. Sweat pools on her skin and rushes down her face and arms and legs. She’d be horrified if she were aware of this.
She is pretty. A gentle, fragile soul. Not the sort who would intentionally bring about the catastrophic unraveling that is only, this moment, beginning. In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt
anyone. It is merely a terrible by-product of surviving.
It isn’t her fault, all that comes to pass after that one final, merciless push. She produces the very last thing she could possibly want.
Silent flesh comes forth— a tiny, fair- haired girl as pretty as a doll, yet
blue and still. The woman has no way of knowing her child’s fate, or if she does know, the medications will cause the memory of it to be nothing but a blur by tomorrow.
She ceases her thrashing and surrenders to the twilight sleep, lulled by the doses of morphine and scopolamine administered to help her defeat the pain.
To help her release everything, and she will.
Sympathetic conversation takes place as doctors stitch and nurses clean up what is left.
“So sad when it happens this way. So out of order when a life has not even one breath in this world.”
“You have to wonder sometimes . . . why . . . when a child is so very wanted . . .”
A veil is lowered. Tiny eyes are shrouded. They will never see. The woman’s ears hear but cannot grasp. All slips in and slips away. It is as if she is attempting to catch the tide, and it drains through her clenched fingers, and finally she floats out along with it.
A man waits nearby, perhaps in the hallway just outside the door. He is stately, dignified. Unaccustomed to being so helpless. He was to become a grandfather today.
Glorious anticipation has melted into wrenching anguish.
“Sir, I am so terribly sorry,” the doctor says as he slips from the room. “Rest assured that everything humanly possible was done to ease your daughter’s labor and to save the baby. I understand how very difficult this is. Please offer our condolences to the baby’s father when you are finally able to reach him overseas. After so many disappointments, your family must have held such great hope.”
“Will she be able to have more?” “It isn’t advisable.”
“This will be the end of her. And her mother as well, when she learns of it. Christine is our only child, you know. The pitter-patter of little feet . . . the beginning of a new generation ..”
“I understand, sir.”
“What are the risks should she . . .”
“Her life. And it’s extremely unlikely that your daughter would ever carry another pregnancy to term. If she were to try, the results could be . . .”
The doctor lays a comforting hand on the heartbroken man, or this is the way it happens in my imaginings. Their gazes tangle.
The physician looks over his shoulder to be certain that the nurses cannot hear. “Sir, might I suggest something?” he says quietly, gravely. “I know of a woman in Memphis. . . .”
Aiken, South Carolina
I take a breath, scoot to the edge of the seat, and straighten my jacket as the limo rolls to a stop on the boiling-hot asphalt. News vans wait along the curb, accentuating the importance of this morning’s seemingly innocuous meeting.
But not one moment of this day will happen by accident. These past two months in South Carolina have been all about making sure the nuances are just right—shaping the inferences so as to hint but do no more.
Definitive statements are not to be made. Not yet, anyway.
Not for a long time, if I have my way about it.
I wish I could forget why I’ve come home, but even the fact that my father isn’t reading his notes or checking the briefing from Leslie, his über-efficient press secretary, is an undeniable reminder. There’s no escaping the enemy that rides silently in the car with us. It’s here in the backseat, hiding beneath the gray tailored suit that hangs a hint too loose over my father’s broad shoulders.
Daddy stares out the window, his head leaning to one side. He has relegated his aides and Leslie to another car.
“You feeling all right?” I reach across to brush a long blond hair— mine—off the seat so it won’t cling to his trousers when he gets out. If my mother were here, she’d whip out a mini lint brush, but she’s home, preparing for our second event of the day—a family Christmas photo that must be taken months early . . . just in case Daddy’s prognosis worsens.
He sits a bit straighter, lifts his head. Static makes his thick gray hair stick straight out. I want to smooth it down for him, but I don’t. It would be a breach of protocol.
If my mother is intimately involved in the micro aspects of our lives, such as fretting over lint and planning for the family Christmas photo in July, my father is the opposite. He is distant—an island of staunch maleness in a household of women.
I know he cares deeply about my mother, my two sisters, and me, but he seldom voices the sentiment out loud. I also know that I’m his favorite but the one who confuses him most. He is a product of an era when women went to college to secure the requisite MRS degree. He’s not quite sure what to do with a thirty-year-old daughter who graduated top of her class from Columbia Law and actually enjoys the gritty world of a U.S. attorney’s office.
Whatever the reason—perhaps just because the positions of perfectionist daughter and sweet daughter were already taken in our family— I have always been brainiac daughter. I loved school and it was the unspoken conclusion that I would be the family torchbearer, the son replacement, the one to succeed my father. Somehow, I always imagined that I’d be older when it happened and that I would be ready.
Now I look at my dad and think, How can you not want it, Avery? This is what he’s worked for all his life. What generations of Staffords have labored for since the Revolutionary War, for heaven’s sake. Our family has always held fast to the guiding rope of public service. Daddy is no exception. Since graduating from West Point and serving as an army aviator before I was born, he has upheld the family name with dignity and determination.
Of course you want this, I tell myself. You’ve always wanted this. You just didn’t expect it to happen yet, and not this way. That’s all.
Secretly, I’m clinging by all ten fingernails to the best-case scenario. The enemies will be vanquished on both fronts—political and medical. My father will be cured by the combination of the surgery that brought him home from the summer congressional session early and the chemo pump he must wear strapped to his leg every three weeks. My move home to Aiken will be temporary.
Cancer will no longer be a part of our lives.
It can be beaten. Other people have done it, and if anyone can, Senator Wells Stafford can.
There is not, anywhere, a stronger man or better man than my dad.
“Ready?” he asks, straightening his suit. It’s a relief when he swipes down the rooster tail in his hair. I’m not prepared to cross the line from daughter to caretaker.
“Right behind you.” I’d do anything for him, but I hope it’s many more years before we’re forced to reverse the roles of parent and child. I’ve learned how hard that is while watching my father struggle to make decisions for his mother.
My once quick-witted, fun-loving Grandma Judy is now a ghost of her former self. As painful as that is, Daddy can’t talk to anyone about it.
If the media gets clued in to the fact that we’ve moved her to a facility, especially an upscale one on a lovely estate not ten miles from here, it’ll be a lose-lose situation, politically speaking.
Given the burgeoning scandal over a series of wrongful death and abuse cases involving corporate-owned eldercare facilities in our state, Daddy’s political enemies would either point out that only those with money can afford premium care or they’d accuse my father of warehousing his mom because he is a coldhearted lout who cares nothing for the elderly.
They’d say that he’ll happily turn a blind eye toward the needs of the helpless if it protects his friends and campaign contributors.
- Edited extract from Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (HQ Fiction, $29.99), now available where all good books are sold and online at harlequinbooks.com.au.