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The Book of Lost Friends–unforgettable
The Book of Lost Friends
by Lisa Wingate
Slavery and the Civil War tore families apart—especially Black families. Some of their stories appeared in the newspaper Southwestern Christian Advocate as desperate appeals to locate or discover news of long lost family members. Pastors were encouraged to read them to their congregations, and optimism sprang up in the hearts of many former slaves as they hoped and prayed to be united many years later with family who in countless cases were only a name passed down from parent to child. I can’t imagine the pain parents suffered at having their children ripped away from them and sold often never to be heard from again. The Black slaves were people, but they were regarded as disposable property.
The Book of Lost Friends begins with the story of Hannie Gossett who misses her family desperately. Unable to read or write, she has all of their names recorded in her memory. In 1875, Hannie and Tati who raised her are close to completing a ten year period of working a piece of land that belongs to her former slave owners. Just as the contract’s transfer should be completed, the former master disappears and the contract is put in jeopardy. Hannie begins a journey with great risks to find him. A black woman traveling alone is a dangerous undertaking, and her departure could annul the very contract she is trying to locate.
This novel has a dual timeline. Every other chapter alternates to tell the story of Benny Silva, a young teacher who has a past with secrets but a heart to make a difference for her students growing up in poverty in Augustine, Louisiana, in 1987. Constantly bombarded with negative messages about their worth, these students go to a different school from those who have more prosperous parents. The school building is in bad shape, the students’ attendance and behavior are abysmal, and parent support is almost non-existent.
When Benny discovers and obtains access to a private library of books, she thinks she may have found a motivator for her students. She wins support from some local women the students respect, and the teens become excited about a school project.
As both timelines move forward, it is difficult for the reader to leave one timeline to see where the story is going in the other timeline. In a good dual timeline novel, the reader is equally interested in both timelines and in discovering where they cross or overlap. Lisa Wingate is an expert at storytelling and at weaving her tales together. There are many other fascinating characters, and The Book of Lost Friends quickly became a book I didn’t want to put down. It is so well told that I could put myself in the story imagining vividly the struggles of the former slaves and of the students captive to poverty and dysfunctional families.
Category: Historical Fiction
Notes: 1. All of the Hannie chapters include a letter to the editor of the Lost Friends column so you can read for yourself this part of history.
2. At the author’s website, lisawingate.com there are valuable resources listed under the heading “for book clubs” that include discussion questions and pictures and information the author gathered by visiting plantations and national parks. There are also links to pertinent interviews and podcasts as well as a database that has been created based on the Lost Friends letters.
Publication: 2020—Ballantine Books (Random House)
Few things are more life affirming than watching an idea that was fledgling and frail in its infancy, seemingly destined for birth and death in almost the same breath, stretch its lungs and curl its fingers around the threads of life, and hang on with a determination that can’t be understood, only felt.
The thing about so many of the kids here—country kids, town kids, a sad majority of these kids—is that their norm is constant drama, constant escalation. Conversations start, grow louder, get ugly, get personal. Insults fly and then lead to pushing, shoving, hair pulling, scratching, throwing punches, you name it…All too often children in Augustine grow up in a pressure cooker.
When you’re a kid in a tough family situation, you’re painfully vulnerable to trying to fill the void with peers. As much as I’m in favor of young love in theory, I’m also aware of the potential fallout. I can’t help feeling that Lil’ Ray and LaJuna need a teenage relationship about as much as I need five-inch stilettos.