As I noted in an earlier column, the ongoing pandemic has resulted in an upsurge in reading activity among those who are spending more time at home. That fact prompted me to devote a half-dozen recent columns on the topic of books with an Aiken connection. This is yet another entry in that series.
Thanks to the kind offices of local residents Judi Hammond and Claire Michelinie, I recently became aware of a 2017 novel titled “Before We Were Yours” by former journalist Lisa Wingate. Judi first mentioned the title, and Claire lent me a copy.
The author uses three principal settings – two in South Carolina and one in Tennessee – to weave a fictional tale based on a real-life national scandal, a black market adoption ring operating under the guise of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. From the early 1920s to 1950, the Memphis branch of the organization was run by Georgia Tann, who duped birth parents, most often poor and undereducated, into giving up custodial rights to their children, who were then sold to wealthy clients, particularly in New York and California. All records of how Tann acquired the children and their eventual disposition – some died of malnutrition and neglect in the agency’s care – were destroyed.
How does Aiken figure in this tragic tale? Wingate decided to make the fictional protagonist of her novel a young woman who is not only a savvy attorney with a nose for the truth but also the daughter of a prominent senator. According to an online interview, the author claims to have visited Aiken several times and always found it to be “a lovely town with that Southern feeling.” She also admits that she was well aware that “a famous senator comes from there.”
The senator in question is obviously the late Strom Thurmond, who set up housekeeping in Aiken after he lost his first run for the U.S. Senate. He lived with his first wife Jean on Kalmia Hill; she is buried in Bethany Cemetery at the top of Laurens Street. He lived with his second wife, Nancy, in Fox Chase.
It was important for Wingate’s plot that her main character Avery Stafford come from a prominent family and that the family in question have a long-buried secret. In the case of Strom Thurmond, it was, of course, the knowledge that he had concealed for decades the fact that he had fathered a child by a teenage maid of African American heritage working for his family. The Staffords have a secret too, and its uncovering serves as the book’s main plot line.
The Thurmond family secret was eventually revealed after the senator’s death in 2003. Six months later, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, then in her 70s, was publicly acknowledged as a member of the family. Her memoir titled “Dear Senator” was published in 2005, and I remember well a book signing held in her honor at the Etherredge Center not long after its publication. The Stafford family secret – you’ll have to read the book to find it out – also involves information long suppressed and brought to light only when those principally implicated are of advanced age.
Other than as a former place of residence of a prominent politician, how successful is Wingate in making use of Aiken as one of the novel’s three main settings? I think most readers will agree that in her treatment of Aiken, she could have done a more effective job in evoking a sense of place. Except for one mention of Hitchcock Woods and several references to “horseback riding,” there isn’t much to differentiate Aiken from any other small town with tree-lined streets in this part of the country.
Wingate is much more successful in her use of Edisto Island as her novel’s second South Carolina setting. Her physical descriptions of the Lowcountry are much more fleshed out. She describes, for example, how the protagonist crosses Dawhoo Bridge, the main link between the island and the mainland, and subsequently enters a world of salt marshes, pluff mud, Spanish moss and blue herons. The real estate office of the blond, blue-eyed fellow who is to become Avery Stafford’s principal love interest – the book combines both mystery and romance – is located on Jungle Road, one of the main arteries on Edisto Beach.
In the final analysis, however, neither the Aiken chapters nor the ones set on Edisto are the heart of this book. The passages devoted to the horrors that the forcibly orphaned children must have faced at the hands of Georgia Tann and her cohorts at the Memphis orphanage are among the book’s most gripping. The five fictional children that Wingate puts in harm’s way in the book are poignant stand-ins for the estimated 5,000 youngsters who were stolen from their parents by Tann, one of our country’s most notorious child traffickers.