The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate: Tragic, thought-provoking but ultimately uplifting, this is a sobering history lesson wrapped up in an enthralling adventure - book review -
The Book of Lost Friends
By Pam Norfolk
‘We all have scars…’
The words of a schoolteacher as she contemplates her class of young freed slaves in the aftermath of the American Civil War ring loud and clear in a powerful and emotional novel from Lisa Wingate, author of 2019’s global, two million-copy bestseller, Before We Were Yours.
In her pulsating new novel, Wingate, who has earned a reputation as a master storyteller, brings us a tale based on the real-life ‘Lost Friends’ advertisements which were placed in a southwestern Methodist newspaper beginning in the 1870s by freed slaves desperately searching for loved ones, torn from them when their families were sold off.
The ads were an ingenious 19th century social media platform in a country still struggling for its identity after the bloody civil war, and the determined hunt by lost souls to find their scattered family members lies at the heart of this moving and captivating historical odyssey.
Using a dual timeline, The Book of Lost Friends weaves between Louisiana in 1875 as the nation’s Reconstruction is underway, and a small town near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1987 as a newly qualified teacher struggles to motivate a class of youngsters living in the kind of poverty she can scarcely begin to comprehend.
For first-year teacher Benedetta (Benny) Silva in 1987, a subsidised job at a poor rural school seems like the perfect ticket to cancelling her hefty student debt and escaping a painful secret that has blighted her life… until she lands in the tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town of Augustine in Louisiana.
Augustine, she soon discovers, is suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny is taken aback by the poverty and reduced life chances of her class of mainly black children and troubled ‘swamp rat’ white kids.
But amid the gnarled oaks and run-down homes lies the century-old history of three young women and a long-ago journey which changed their lives, and could be the inspiration to give hope and purpose to her students. Benny discovers their tumultuous story in a long-forgotten book hidden away in a house which belonged to William Gossett, once the owner of Goswood Grove plantation.
Over 100 years ago, the three women set off as unwilling companions from their small town south of Baton Rouge on a perilous quest in the decade after the end of the Civil War.
Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following roads rife with vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost years before. For Lavinia Gossett, pampered heir to a now destitute plantation, and her illegitimate Creole half-sister Juneau Jane, the journey is one of stolen inheritance and financial desperation as they search for their missing father.
But for 18-year-old freed slave Hannie Gossett, torn from her beloved mother and siblings by a rogue dealer before the slave trade was abolished, the pilgrimage west reignites an agonising question… could her long-lost family still be out there, and will she ever find them?
Wingate’s exploration of the brutal realities and heartbreaking repercussions of the pernicious slave trade moves seamlessly between two States and the lives of two generations of people, but each timeline – punctuated by real posts from the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper – reveals the devastation of fractured families and the innate strength of women to battle through terrible hardship.
The landscape of the past – with its personal dramas, inhumanities and injustices – springs to life in the hands of an author who knows how to tug at heartstrings and consciences as she rolls out a tale full of poignancy, drama, hidden sorrows and redemption.
The Book of Lost Friends speaks loudly about the importance of retrieving history, however painful or difficult that might be, about looking to the past to learn lessons for the future, and never forgetting how intrinsic a sense of family is to the rhythm of life, fulfilment and happiness.
Tragic, thought-provoking but ultimately uplifting, this is a sobering history lesson wrapped up in an enthralling adventure…
(Quercus, hardback, £14.99)