The Book of Lost Friends is a beautifully told story that follows Hannie Gossett, a former slave, as she tries to find her family after the Civil War, and Benny Silva, an idealistic high school teacher, who tries to inspire her students at a poor, rural southern school in the late 1980s. The two story lines eventually converge in a powerful lesson about family, perseverance, and coming to terms with history by looking at it straight on.
Sixteen-year-old Hannie’s part of the story takes place in 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War. She’s working as a share cropper now, on the plantation where she was enslaved, with a handful of other former slaves. Her nights are haunted by dreams of her missing family. Her mother and eight siblings were sold off towards the end of the war, scattered across Louisiana and Texas. She hasn’t seen any of them in ten years.
She suddenly finds herself on the road (long story), with the two teenage daughters of the plantation owner – one (Lavinia) from his wife and the other (Juneau Jane) from his mistress. The plantation owner has disappeared somewhere in Texas and Juneau Jane wants to find her beloved father and ensure her inheritance is secure.
During the journey, they take shelter in a church that has a wall full of newspaper clippings on it. They’re from the “Lost Friends” column of the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a black southern newspaper. The column’s purpose is to help former slaves find their family members. For fifty cents, a person could publish the details of their lost family members and how to get a hold of the “seeker” if anyone had information.
At a point in the journey when Hannie had an opportunity to return to Louisiana, she decides to continue on into Texas in an effort to locate family members. But the quest had expanded beyond just Hannie’s family. Along the way, when people found out what she and Juneau Jane were doing, they would ask the two girls to write down their family members names and also ask about them during their various stops. Thus, the Book of Lost Friends.
Switching gears to 1980s Louisiana, Benny has her first teaching job at a poor high school in a small town.. The kids are indifferent to the traditional curriculum she starts off teaching. But then she has a guest speaker, a gifted storyteller that talks about the history of the town, and that captures the students’ attention. They embark on a research project designed to learn more about their ancestors.
Benny is also living in a rental home on property that was part of the Gossett plantation where Hannie once lived. She befriends the plantation house’s owner, Nathan Gossett, and together they discover secrets about the past that the town’s upper crust doesn’t want revealed.
This book is so good. The storytelling is fantastic. There really was a “Lost Friends” column, which I found both fascinating and heartbreaking. It’s one of those details about the post-Civil War period that most people don’t know about. The newspaper was sent to black churches, where the pastor would read the column to the congregation. The author referred to it as a very early version of social media. Genius. Here’s more information about a project to preserve the column’s history. And here’s a link to a panel discussion with museum staff and author Lisa Wingate that provides more information about their collaboration.
The author, Lisa Wingate, found out about the “Lost Friends” column when she was contacted by someone who admired her previous bestseller, Before We Were Yours (a long time resident of my “to be read” list). The seed was planted and grew to be The Book of Lost Friends.
The story could have taken many directions and I love where the author took it. Hannie’s story illustrates the trauma of slavery and being separated from your family. But it is also a triumphant story because Hannie is brave and smart and perseveres in the face of harsh conditions and acts of violence. And I like that the effort to locate lost friends gained momentum and expanded to include helping people they met along their journey. This made it even bigger and more powerful.
The more modern storyline involving Benny shows that, 110 years later, descendants of Hannie and others from her time are still struggling with poverty and prejudice. But it also shows the importance of knowing and preserving history, especially the history of your family and where you came from, even if the truth is uncomfortable. I like that this is the concept that made Benny’s uninterested students into budding genealogists, even if just temporarily.
As you can see, I really liked The Book of Lost Friends and enthusiastically recommend it.
What’s the last book you enthusiastically recommended?