Desert Isle Keeper
The Book of Lost Friends
I’ve been aware of Lisa Wingate’s writing for many years, but it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Before We Were Yours in the summer of 2017 that I considered myself a fan. In the almost three years since that day, I’ve read several of her backlist titles and I’m now completely under her spell. So when I saw she was releasing a new book this spring, I was super excited to review it.
The Book of Lost Friends is a dual timeline novel, moving back and forth between 1987 and 1875, ten years after the end of the war between the states. The book presents an exploration of slavery, of family, and of love, but even more than that, it’s the story of four women, each with her own personal struggles, each searching for the truth behind who she is and how she fits into an inhospitable world.
In the 1987 portions of the novel, we focus on Benedetta Silva, a teacher who has just finished college and is working her first job at a school in one of Louisiana’s most poverty-stricken regions. It’s not where she expected to end up, but it’s the only job she’s been able to find. She’s not afraid of hard work, but the lackluster view of education held by many of the area’s residents soon begins to wear on her. Desperate to find a way to engage the hearts and minds of her students, Benny begins digging into the town’s history, uncovering many hidden truths along the way and stirring up secrets certain people would rather keep buried forever.
In 1875, our narrator is a former slave named Hannie. She used to belong to one of the richest plantation families in Louisiana, but her former masters have fallen on hard times and their plantation is now pretty much in ruins. Hannie works as a sharecropper and dreams of one day being reunited with her mother and siblings, who were sold years ago. When Lavinia, the daughter of Hannie’s former master, unexpectedly returns home followed closely by Juneau Jane, her Creole half-sister, Hannie suspects something is afoot. Normally, she keeps her head down, desperate to escape the notice of the white people who caused her and her family so much pain, but she’s determined to find out what happened to those she loves and she’s pretty sure Lavinia and Juneau Jane hold the key to her unanswered questions. Disguising herself as a young boy, Hannie becomes Lavinia’s carriage driver, and the three women set out on a dangerous journey across the war-torn south in hopes of having all of their questions answered once and for all.
The novel’s title comes from a series of newspaper columns run during the time after the war’s end when thousands of newly freed slaves were desperately searching for lost family and friends. I don’t want to say too much about how these columns tie into the novel, but I thought potential readers might be interested in the title’s origins, especially if you, like me, never knew such columns existed. This is what I love most about historical fiction, the chance to learn things we unfortunately aren’t taught in schools.
I’ve read a ton of historical fiction about the Civil War, but I haven’t found nearly as much written about the reconstructionist era. Here, Lisa Wingate brings this piece of history to life, and I was utterly entranced by her descriptions of the way so many lives were altered by the war. Certain passages were very difficult to read, as you might expect given the subject matter, but I never felt the author was trying to shock. Instead, she handles tough subjects with a great deal of sensitivity.
I adore dual timeline novels, but it’s not uncommon for one timeline to hold my interest more than the other. I love history, so I’m usually drawn into the sections set in the past and I tend to view the more contemporary portions as a sort of vehicle used to move the story forward. Fortunately though, Ms. Wingate managed to make both stories equally compelling. Hannie and Benny are on very different journeys, but both learn a lot along the way, and so did I.
There’s a lot to unpack as you read this book, but the engaging nature of the writing makes that super easy to do. The subject matter is understandably heavy, but the stark beauty of the prose carried me through even the most difficult passages, allowing me to identify with the characters and their various plights. Not everyone is likable, but that’s okay. In fact, it adds an extra layer of authenticity to this already excellent story, making The Book of Lost Friends one of my favorite novels of 2020.