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The Power of Stories

Cindy Burnett
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Before and After

Cindy Burnett’s current read reminds her of the power of stories. 

Writing a weekly book column is a dream come true for me. The power of books is unlike anything else – reading can transport me to another place, educate me about a culture or locale with which I am unfamiliar, teach me to be empathetic, keep me company when I am alone, and so much more. 

Whether I am speaking to a group about book recommendations, attending a book conference, or doing something else book-related, I am constantly evaluating whether that particular happening would provide good fodder for an article. I had one such experience last week. My Murder by the Book coworker John MacDougall and I traveled to Jefferson, Texas to sell books at a yearly event called the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriends Weekend.

At this girlfriends’ weekend, authors and readers come together to celebrate books, and it is an event unlike anything that I have ever attended. There are author panels, lookalike contests (this time it was Dolly Parton in honor of one of the chosen books), awards, galley giveaways, and table-decorating contests. Numerous Texas authors were in attendance including Judithe Little, Julie Kibler and Marjorie Herrera Lewis. I met authors and readers in person that I have communicated with in Facebook groups and other reading outlets and enjoyed seeing the camaraderie experienced by people who love to read.

Since we were the booksellers, we manned the book table and listened to the various author panels and presentations. While I was familiar with some of the books, others were new to me including Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate. Before and After is the nonfiction sequel to Wingate’s last book, Before We Were Yours, a fictionalized account of children impacted by a child trafficker named Georgia Tann who ran the Tennessee Home Children’s Society in Memphis, Tennessee. Under Tann’s direction between the mid-1920s and 1950, more than 5,000 children were stolen from poor families, desperate single mothers, and women who were told their babies died, and these babies were sold to wealthier people who could afford to buy a child.

To date, Before We Were Yours has spent a total of 34 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, and I sometimes feel that I am the only person I know who has not read it. People frequently mention it to me and tell me how much they loved that book. This feeling of being the last person to read this book was reinforced when Judy Christie told the audience that it has sold 2.4 million copies, a staggering number for a book today.

Speaking at the luncheon on Saturday, Judy regaled the audience with stories from Before and After. Almost immediately after Before We Were Yours was published, Wingate began receiving emails from living adoptees and children of those adoptees who were placed in homes by the Tennessee Home Children’s Society. With their permission, she connected the people that contacted her, which led to sharing of information and the locating of birth parents and siblings that had not seen each other in more than 50 years.

Amazed by the impact of her book, Wingate reached out to Christie, an award-winning journalist and novelist herself, regarding what to do with these powerful stories, and the two decided to collaborate on a nonfiction follow-up to Before We Were Yours

When she spoke at the luncheon, Christie told numerous touching reunion stories. However, Christie also focused on the power of stories and their ability to bring change. As a result of Wingate’s book, people looked into their family history and learned that they were impacted by Tann’s crimes and others were able to better understand their own family’s history.

As a lifelong reader and lover of literature, her message resonated with me. Once we returned to Houston (and I finally slept some), Christie’s stories continued to occupy a space in my thoughts, so I sat down to flip through Before and After. Two hours later I was still reading, completely enthralled with the impact of Before We Were Yours and the stories relayed to Christie and Wingate by the individuals cycled through Tann’s child factory. Again, it hit me - the power of stories is unlike anything else.

When I sat down to write this article, I was planning to focus a bit on my current read, Before and After, and then highlight some other nonfiction titles that I love because I have not written much about nonfiction. Instead, I ended up writing an ode to the power of one book to change many people’s lives. This is exactly why I love what I do, and I’ll save my recommendations for nonfiction page turners for another time.

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram or Cindy’s Reading Recs

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