Also by this author: 1 Step Away, The Best of Evil, A Shred of Truth, Expiration Date, Dark to Mortal Eyes
Published by Chalice Press on April 4, 2023
Genres: Non-Fiction, Biography
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When three children follow their parents through eastern Europe on Bible-smuggling adventures in the early 1970s, they have no idea their father is fleeing a felony warrant for his arrest.
Returning to the States, they face third-culture questions of home and identity. They also deal with sexual situations and abuse, while settling into an evangelical bubble with their parents who pastor a fast-growing church.
Everything collapses when their father runs off with an eighteen-year-old girl, leaving behind his family and church. This forces Heidi, Eric, and Shaun to reconcile their own spiritual fervor with the lies and dysfunction so close to home.
I’ve followed Eric Wilson’s career through its ups and downs ever since being hooked fifteen years ago by Field of Blood, the first in his Jerusalem’s Undead trilogy. If it has Eric Wilson’s name on the cover, I read it. Simple as that. It’s been over a year now since I first heard of American Leftovers, a Wilson-sibling memoir that chronicles their unique childhood and reflects on the impact—for good and bad—it has had on their lives. Some of this I already knew. I knew that the Wilsons had spent time in Eastern Europe because their parents smuggled Bibles. I didn’t know that they did this because their dad was fleeing the country from a felony arrest warrant. I knew that their family had been devastated by their father’s infidelity. I didn’t know it was while he was pastoring a large and fast-growing church.
American Leftovers: Surviving Family, Religion, and the American Dream is the story of three siblings as they navigate life as missionary kids with deeply flawed parents who grow up disillusioned and lost because of the trauma their childhood faith left them with. The Wilsons deal with never fitting in, whether as young kids being constantly moved from place to place or as older children finally settling in America but never quite feeling American, then having that settled life blow up once again. It’s incredible to see the Wilsons’ resilience and perseverance through their story and find out how they have come to their current place of peace.
I do, though, have a couple of criticisms. Mainly, the book reads like it is written by three people. Of course, it is written by three people and the book helpfully includes headers so you know who is writing at any given moment. However, I found that this gave the book a very jumpy feel to it. It’s conversational, like I’m sitting across from the Wilson clan and listening to their story but the parts don’t always cohere very well. The book is written chronologically rather than thematically, meaning that certain plot threads feel like they get lost only to resurface unexpectedly. I think that if the book had been developed to focus longer on one voice or theme, the impact and insights of the story might have come across even stronger. A second weakness of the book is its reliance on childhood memories and remaining within the limited perspective of childhood. Particularly in the early parts of the book, when the Wilsons are all very young and their parents are Bible smuggling, there is little detail on what was actually going on because the story’s perspective is that of young children who are just being whisked from place to place. The result is a scattered and piecemeal story that gives hints at a fuller story underneath but never quite delivers.
American Leftovers feels like a book that was written more for the catharsis than anything else. For their own wellbeing, the Wilsons needed to get together and spend time speaking their stories to one another, writing it down, and reliving both the nostalgia and the trauma. I can imagine that the writing process was both extremely difficult and immensely healing. As a reader, you feel almost like you’re intruding into something private at times. But the Wilsons’ story isn’t just for them. Their hope is that, while their story might be more extreme than others, that other people who grew up in Christian fundamentalism and who have since become frustrated or disillusioned with faith would be able to read their story and have hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Eric, Heidi, and Shaun have survived family, religion, and the American Dream and come out the other side bruised and beaten, but not defeated. American Leftovers is a powerful story of hope, healing, and overcoming.