For three decades (1920-50), the Tennessee Children’s Home Society (Memphis) appeared to be an above-board adoption agency but was actually a center for child trafficking. Under Georgia Tann’s greedy leadership, dozens of impoverished children were literally snatched from their mothers’ arms at birth, provided forged identify papers and sold to the highest bidder. What could be the harm? These “river rats” would have lives they could never have dreamed of in their affluent new homes.
In this historical fiction novel, Lisa Wingate has done the world a great service by laying bare the life-long abuse, trauma, and despair that the “orphans” and their helpless parents endured (through large doses of willful blindness, the remaining records were not unsealed until 1995 – far too late for most chances of reunion).
Wingate readily spans the generational gap by employing two women, bouncing back and forth between what was and what is. Rill Foss (eventually to become May Weathers and finally May Crandall) relives the brutal abduction from the Arcadia (riverboat home) to the grim reality of the children’s home before ending up after a long life in a nursing home. Living a life of privilege due to family pedigree, Avery Stafford uses her considerable legal skills to ferret out the truth as to why her dementia-suffering grandmother seems to be holding back a family secret – one that could well scuttle her father’s chances for re-election to the Senate.
With that narrative technique put into play, readers will be intrigued to see if they can put the pieces of this familial puzzle together before the principals do.
Real-life Georgia Tann is fictionally recreated and given a most believable tone as the ruthless baby-snatcher-for-cash. Her staff members include a nasty mix of Mrs. Murphy, a vicious matron who delights in all manner of threats and punishment alongside her pathetic cousin, Riggs, who tries to lure the prettiest of the girls into his lair and bed. All three of these failed humans can turn on the charm at the drop of a potential “buyer.” Not surprisingly, even forced adoption seems better than staying in the squalid conditions of their “rescue” home.
By the time the skeletons finally escape the closet, it is truly disturbing what those who ought to have known better and have never gone to bed hungry will do in the name of “improving” the lives of our most vulnerable souls. Surely those days are over…