By Lisa Wingate
Leave it to author Lisa Wingate to find another heart-breaking chapter of America’s past and deliver it with a deft, suspenseful and, above all, hopeful voice. Wingate’s previous work, Before We Were Yours, told a story based on the true events of kidnapping and illegal adoption of children in the 1940’s. Wingate’s latest, The Book of Lost Friends, is similarly inspired by true events following the Civil War, when African-American families sought to find family members separated by slavery through paid advertisements for “Lost Friends.” The story is told through the first-person voices of two women: Hannie, a former slave in 1875, and Benny, a teacher living on the former plantation grounds, in 1987. Back and forth, the chapters switch smoothly between the two women’s stories. As a reader, you have the fun of watching for the intersecting clues between them, though nearly a century apart.
I especially loved how Wingate sprinkles similes throughout her narrative that do double-duty, speaking to that character's world and experience. For example, former slave Hannie describes the young white girl on the plantation: "Missy's soft and amiable again, like she's coaxing a little piglet from the corner, so's she can string it up and cut its throat." Or for Benny, a new teacher in the country small town, "Ideas circle the room like honeybees, buzzing from landing place to landing placed, gather the nectar of inspiration." The effect is to add a sense of place.
Suspense kept me turning the pages. Empathy compelled me to keep reading—I yearned for a happy ending, especially because every few chapters a real news clipping of actual Lost Friends notices was tucked into the narrative. Their inclusion kept bringing the story back to reality: mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters searching for family scattered across the South, disappearing when they were separated and sold to different slave owners. This book may have torn open a wound our country has forgotten about, but I think that by bringing it out in the open, it can serve to help heal it too.