From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours comes a new novel inspired by historical events: a dramatic story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its vital connection to her own students’ lives.
In her distinctive voice, Lisa Wingate brings to life startling stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.
Louisiana, 1875: In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.
Louisiana, 1987: For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Augustine, Louisiana. The town seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled live oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.
This book caught me by surprise. The concept intrigued me – parallel stories past & present about the “lost friends” letters in the Southwestern Christian Advocate that helped reunite former slaves and their families, and a modern story about descendants of some of those slaves who reconnect with their history.
It takes a skilled writer to construct a narrative that jumps between centuries but keeps a common thread running through both past and present. Often, one of the story threads is better developed and more interesting, but that doesn’t happen here. Both past and present are are equally captivating. I found myself reading swiftly through chapters because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.
The story set in the past, that of Hannie Gossett, is wrenching and raw. The unspeakable way slave families were broken up and sold and how black women and girls were treated by white men and women is hard to read, but it is an important part of the narrative which makes the end of Hattie’s story that much more satisfying.
The present day story about a naive but enthusiastic young teacher who finds a way to connect with her students through history is, at times, a bit too convenient. However, the teacher (Miss Silva), the adult characters, and the kids are well-developed and endearing.
This will appeal to Wingate’s fan base, for sure, and would make a decent book club book. It must be said that there are better novels about life as a slave out there (Beloved and certainly The Water Dancer by Coates), but The Book of Lost Friends is a good addition to that genre of books and will introduce readers to the Lost Friends letters which can be viewed online. Recommended.
Publication Date: April 7, 2020
Published By: Random House – Ballantine
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy