The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate unfolds two parallel narratives—one contemporary and the other set in the 19th century after slaves have been emancipated. The prologue opens with a student who is afraid to give a speech to an audience. This scene is repeated in the epilogue. The teacher encourages her student by saying:
“Where will they hear the story if not from you—the story of being stolen away from family? Of writing an advertisement seeking any word of loved ones, and hoping to save up the fifty cents to have it printed in the Southwestern Paper so that it might travel through all the nearby states and territories? How will they understand the desperate need to finally know, Are my people out there, somewhere?”
The first story is set in 1875. It is narrated by Hannie Gossett, a former slave on the Gosswood Plantation in Augustine, Louisiana. The plantation’s owner, Mr. Gossett has been gone a little too long, and there is a worry that he has died in Texas. Hannie wants to find the sharecropper papers showing the land she and her friends have been working will belong to them next year. Through a series of unfortunate events, Hannie ends up on a wild journey with Lavinia, the plantation owner’s legitimate daughter, and Juneau Jane, his illegitimate half-black daughter. Hannie continues on the journey propelled by her hope of finding her family that she was torn away from during slavery. I especially enjoyed the part of the journey through Fort Worth, Texas which was known as “Hell’s Half Acre” because of the violence and lawlessness.
The contemporary story is set in 1987. It follows first-year teacher Benedetta “Benny” Silva who has just moved to Augustine, Louisiana from California. She is an English teacher who needs to work at a low-income school for debt forgiveness of her student loans. Augustine is a town where people are immediately divided into groups based on race and income. The students at Benny’s are unruly and uninspired. One of the students tells her about a library full of books at an abandoned plantation house. Benny gets permission from the young grandson who has inherited the house to use the books in her classroom. The library contains records of slave births, sales, and deaths. From there, an idea springs to life to have Benny’s students research their family history and give a live presentation of their findings. However, many in the community do not wish for that history to be remembered.
The author begins each chapter with actual advertisements that were placed by former slaves who are trying to find their families. These are very poignant.
5-Stars. Book Club Recommended. The Book of Lost Friends is definitely going to be in my Favorite Books read in 2020. I highly recommend it!!