The Book of Lost Friends
By Lisa Wingate
Published in 2020
I first read Lisa Wingate when she published Before We Were Yours, a story based on actual events. I loved it so I picked up The Prayer Box. That was a good book, but it didn’t prompt me to read more of her work, until now. I’d have to read more of her novels to really make a solid case, but my gut feeling is that Wingate found her groove (although she’s far from a new novelist) with Before We Were Yours, and that groove has carried over to The Book of Lost Friends. Why? I haven’t a clue – since all three that I read are time slip novels so there’s no difference in the structure. Perhaps because the latter two books are based on real events, but since I’ve not dug up interviews with the author, etc., I can only speculate.
The Book of Lost Friends follows two timelines and two POVs and both are initially set in Louisiana. The “current” storyline follows Bennie Silva, a first-year teacher who accepts a position in Augustine, Louisiana as a means of student loan forgiveness for teaching for five years in an impoverished school. What she finds is an underfunded facility with a school board, and teachers, who care nothing about the students. The students, in turn, care nothing about education. Once she meets some of the locals, Bennie realizes there is a treasure trove of oral history in the town that the students should learn. Once this history is brought into the classroom, the students’ interest is pricked and they launch a living history project to present to the town. As the students learn about their own antecedents and their rich history, Bennie comes to terms with her own past.
In the 1875 timeline, Hannie is a freed slave still living at the plantation house in Augustine, only a year away from obtaining her sharecropper license and working her own land. Twelve years prior, her entire family (including her mother, siblings, aunt, and cousins) were sold between Louisiana and Texas. Hannie was the only one to return to her birth place. Now, Hannie’s former master has disappeared on a trip to Texas and Hannie inadvertently gets swept up in a journey to find him with the his daughter, Lavinia, and his illegitimate daughter, Juneau Jane. Trouble befalls the girls almost immediately and, against her better judgement, Hannie stays to care for the sisters and find her former owner rather than return home to work her land. While taking shelter in a church, Hannie stumbles upon issues of a newspaper with a column seeking “lost friends” – family members of slaves split apart during the confederacy. This propels Hannie to go to Texas with the sisters, asking after her family along the way and picking up more requests for missing family from nearly everyone they meet until they have an entire book of lost friends.
Both timelines were riveting – and that’s unusual in time slip novels. I generally find that one timeline is more interesting and carries more weight than the other. Either of these stories could have stood on their own and combined, they made for a powerfully emotional novel. The power of the Gosset family was nearly absolute in both timelines and they had the ability to make or break the residents of their town/plantation on a whim. In both stories, the heroine overcomes this abuse of power through her own strength, with a little outside help. What nailed the story for me, though, was when the timelines became intertwined. As the students wrote and performed their oral histories, the characters in the historic timeline came alive in the 1987 world, giving me back to back “aha” moments. I love how the family trees were so skillfully woven in. The conclusion of the historic story was also wrapped up naturally and satisfactorily.
There are only two things I would have done differently and both of them came in the last pages of the book. The prologue was vague but it worked well as a set-up, until I got to the epilogue. By that point, I understood who was in the prologue, so I didn’t see the need to repeat it almost verbatim in the epilogue, only adding in a few details and actual names. There was no tension there since I’d already read the scene. In addition, Wingate slipped in a last second plot twist that, at least as far as I could tell, wasn’t mentioned in the rest of the story and wouldn’t have detracted from my overall satisfaction if not put in. In fact, I think I’d have preferred it. I don’t like ending a book thinking “Where did that come from?”
Despite that, I read the book in two sittings and stayed up somewhat late to finish it. I gave this book 4.5 stars.
Until next time, thank you for visiting.