Author: Veronica Slaughter
It’s 1959, a sultry afternoon in the Philippines; eight-year-old Veronica and her three siblings (nine-year-old Valerie, seven-year-old Vance, and three-year-old Vincent) have been busily helping their mother make donuts at her coffee shop when suddenly their absentee American father returns. This time, it looks like their divorced parents might get along. This time there is love and understanding, kindness and flowers, and their father just wants a little time with his children: just a quick lunch hour. He is so different. Maybe there is hope this time.
Bob Slaughter is angry that his Filipino wife has dared to disobey him, much less leave America with their children and forge a safe space for herself on her home island. Bob always wins, and this time he will take what is his and exact revenge. If that means abducting his children, taking them to America, and living for years on-the-run, then he’ll do it. The children won’t see their mother again until 1963, in another country, and their lives will never be the same.
What follows is a tear-jerking story of four young children, uprooted and exposed to sides of life they should never have seen as Bob moves across America, taking advantage of lonely women, stealing, lying, and cheating. His children are mostly forgotten. Sometimes his children are starving, sometimes abandoned with strangers, and always told that their mother and friends in the Philippines are dead.
As an adult, Veronica Slaughter harkens back to her eight year-old self, starting with the creeping sense that her jocular father never intended to take them to lunch that day and traveling from one abusive circumstance to another. While Slaughter speaks mostly from the prospective of a child, suddenly thrown into a confusing and sordid world, she also gives us a sense of time and the long-ranging devastation of those years while they were “missing” in an epilogue that hints at far more than the horrors she chose to relive on paper.
I’m normally not a fan of memoirs, but part of being a reviewer (and a desperate book worm) involves stepping outside of my usual “likes” to explore new kinds of stories. Between Book of the Month and now Have You Seen These Children? I’ve come to love memoirs. I’ll never be attracted by the “famous person reveals all” type of book, but these stories of real people who went through traumas and came out the other side are far more impacting than any novel. There is both resilience and comfort in memoirs and also a sort of catharsis because the author is no longer forced into silence, into hiding those family demons, into concealing the hurts of the past. This is certainly the truth with Have You Seen These Children?, which follows one exceptionally manipulative man and the people he left pulverized in his wake, from his originally naïve and kind hearted wife, to his children, to his lovers, and no doubt to far more people than the scope of this work can contain. It’s a path of heartbreak and while there is redemption through the act of sharing and acknowledging the pain, Have You Seen These Children? is hardly a “they lived happily ever after” type of memoir because, honestly, they don’t. And the scars left behind are very, very bad. We see this only briefly in the epilogue, just enough to realize that the author never shared the worst of her life with Bob. How much more, we wonder, was there?
The writing echoes the mind and scope of an eight-year-old, and while the action of the story is in the past, it very much resonates with the immediacy of now. Slaughter relives her captivity with her father, and while there was much she didn’t understand at the time, she is still able to reveal what’s really happening to readers without ever breaking out of the confines of her own terrified understanding. It’s obvious that the author relieves these scenes as she writes them. What happens, in and of itself, is captivating in the way of all disasters, but what keeps us rooted to the narrator is the emotion she subtly shares with us, the innocence and agony of a child who misses her mother and is terrified of her father.
It was difficult to pace myself and not read this book all at once. It’s beautiful and achingly poignant, and there is a certain call-to-arms, not spoken but felt. The author in some senses seems to desire forgiveness while also giving us a warning about the Bob’s of the world. Just because a man is a father, doesn’t mean he will ever love his children or accept them. As Slaughter’s siblings follow the siren-song of wanting their father’s approval, Veronica watches and waits, there to pick up the pieces and always wondering what she could have done differently. It’s not a happy story, but it’s a strong one, an engrossing one, and one that reveals much about the abused, forgotten children, tucked away in the corners of this world.
– Frances Carden
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