To start, I must warn you, this has been one of the most excruciatingly painful books I’ve ever read. The worst of it is it’s based on the real crimes of an actual person and their acts of heinous cruelty and neglect while running an orphanage filled with children she’d stolen from their families.
The horrors they endured, some to their own deaths, were beyond description and will not go into them here. Suffice it to say, this woman, Georgia Tann, was a sadistic serial killer of children. Young children.
Now imagine what the world is like through a child’s eyes. They and their four siblings living life on a shantyboat built by their father, sailing along through their lives, while their mother awaits the birth of a 6th sibling. Something goes terribly wrong one night and Father has to rush Mother to the hospital for care and she goes into early labor. The children are left on their family boat with the eldest, Rill, in charge.
All goes quickly downhill when authorities, paid handsomely by the director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, swarm the riverside and tear the children away from all they’ve known and loved. They are taken, bewildered, bedraggled, terrified to the orphanage and subjected to torturous ritualistic scrubbings that do less to clean and more to harm but if they cry out, they’re locked in “The Closet”.
Any infraction will do to send a child to The Closet, a small room, completely dark, locked from the outside, and the children are basically forgotten for days at a time. When they come out, they’re scarred emotionally, starved and close to death from thirst. Some actually do go into The Closet and never are seen again.
There is a time split between Rill’s life as a child fighting to hold herself and her siblings together and the adult Rill, now May, in a senior living home. ‘May’ meets Avery and Trent who’ve come to visit seeking answers about a letter Trent has left to Avery’s grandmother who also is in a senior living home, suffering from dementia. He refuses to leave it with Avery, despite her POA documentation, due to the personal nature of its contents and a promise to leave it directly with Avery’s grandmother. What follows is an odyssey of anguish, enlightenment, shock, that leave both Avery & Trent reeling when they realize the reasons behind the letter.
Fans of true crime will be stunned by this story that focuses with laser precision on the dark times of the 1930s when the country was going through a deep depression and families lived hardscrabble lives that were simple yet, the children knew nothing else and were happy despite it all. For fans of podcasts, you can find this story in the True Crime Brewery’s YouTube channel here. There are links in the description box on their channel for the iTunes Tiegrabber podcast.
Lisa Wingate’s approach was through a child’s voice, their emotions and even language were peppered throughout to give the reader a depth of feeling and empathy for those littlest victims of an abusive monster hiding behind a facade of respectability. Ms Wingate’s words and flowing rendering of a mental painting hold you tightly with every turn of the page, leaving you with outrage for the wrongs perpetrated, the lost lives, and heartbroken for the parents who had no idea surrender papers had been forged with their names. They were left lost, not knowing what happened to their babies. This story will keep you there in the 1930s as well as travel forward to the newest generation that’s only now discovering how that one hellish place impacted their lives forever.