Was it a weird coincidence or my own unconscious choice-making at play that I ended up picking so many books with ‘the x of lost x’ recently? Today’s featured book is The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate. A truly fascinating read with characters you want to root for.
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The Book Review
The Book of Lost Friends
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 Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, 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.
Like with the previous titles that went by ‘The x of Lost x,’ the title grabbed my attention. Who were these lost friends? What information did this book contain? And then the blurb ensured I was going to read this one. An historical fiction set in dual POV between two timelines (one for each POV).
What I Loved
Everything! That is the truth. I cannot really find much to not like about the book. Even if I point out something, I will have to look hard for those issues and they will be minute grievances. For example, I would have liked to read a little more about some very specific events or people in the book. But even without those details I wish for, this book is definitely one to read.
Each character is well thought out and fleshed out (even that nameless stranger in one chapter who makes a brief appearance). While the main protagonists, Benny and Hannie, were both women I would like to befriend, I think I was awed by Hannie a tad more. But every character, be it those who helped Hannie and Benny on their journeys, or those who hindered them, is unique and memorable in this story.
Each chapter ends in a cliff-hanger of sorts and since the chapters alternate between the timelines, we have to wait at least one full chapter before we can find out what next in that timeline. While the new chapter captures your interest right at the start and you are lost. So this book easily keeps you reading, and engaged.
I was awed at how effortlessly Lisa Wingate slips back and forth between the two POVs; each of which is spoken from two very different perspectives, and “awe-ingly” two distinct dialects.
While one timeline or POV often captures interests in such books, I found it a tough choice between these two as each one had its special something to ensure I enjoyed it. Lisa Wingate’s descriptions take us to both 1875 and 1987 Louisiana with equal ease, and we are right there with Hannie and Benny with every step they take.
I truly loved all the themes that threaded the book into one beautiful story. Themes of family, friendship, making and strengthening new relationships, survival and strength, the power of community and kindness, and the wonders that sheer determination and persistence can bring about.
What I Learned
By now I have realized that I truly love historical fiction; and not just those historical romances I devour periodically! And when a book teaches something I did not know at all, well, then it is like icing on the cake.
This book definitely fits everything I enjoy in a good historical fiction. It is truly well-researched and beautifully written. And while the fiction tugged at heartstrings, the facts totally opened me up to so much more. All those actual ‘Lost Friend‘ ads included throughout the book provided an effective, heartbreaking, and enlightening backdrop to the story and subtly highlighted the darkness that was slavery; and in a way shines light on what we need to do to make the world a better place.
And I also learned about the Carnegie Libraries, the women who helped found libraries and more for colored people, something more about the underground railroad, as well as additional historical facts.
There is so much more I can say about this book. For instance, those connections drawn between those two timelines is fascinating and inspires me to go check out genealogies for myself.
And it is relevant, even with both those timelines in the past (1875 and 1987); especially in today’s Black Lives Matter environment to educate ourselves about our past and how we can use it to ensure things change.
Of course, those quotes I normally include; again, I had way too many but here are just a few (selected randomly)
- “Laughter rings the rafters like church bells, constant, musical, the sound amplified by the rusty tin roof and showered down again”
- “Sad thing when stories die out for lack of listenin’ ears.”
- “Sometime, trouble can be like a cut of thread, all tangled up and wrong-twisted from the spinning. Can’t see the why of it or how to get it straight, but can’t hide from it either.”
- “we work from see to can’t see every day ..”
- “Be like holdin’ hope, in some way, wouldn’t it?”
- “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.”
- “I ponder how we can put a man on the moon, fly shuttles back and forth to outer space, send probes to Mars, and yet we can’t traverse the boundaries in the human heart, fix what’s wrong.”
And the Other Side
If I had to pick somethings I found could have been better, it would be the portrayal and progress of the relationship between Benny and Nathan, as well as a little more into Benny’s backstory (though things are revealed in the end).
I loved how Lisa Wingate addresses hard issues gracefully, and smoothly blends fact and fiction to give us a book that is meant to be read and remembered. Heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, bringing tears and smiles as it teaches, informs, inspires, uplifts, and holds the readers’ interests from the very beginning to the end (and oh so cleverly too)!
This is a great book to read for discussions and as part of book clubs; and if you do, here is a resource you can use.
Get It Here
Disclaimer: Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for the digital review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
And Now, the End of This Post
Dear reader, do you have any recommendations of books set in this time? Or books with similar themes? I would love to hear from you about those.