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Feminist Finds: Review of “Gather the Daughters” by Jennie Melamed

Picture it: Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, only instead of the handmaids being grown women, they’re girls who are just beginning to understand their bodies. It is in this world that Jennie Melamed sets her dystopian novel, Gather the Daughters. It isn’t your run of the mill Hunger Games or Walking Dead kind of dystopia. Melamed’s world is quiet, and the characters are complex and sometimes painfully realistic.

The novel is set on an island just out of reach of the apocalyptic mainland-America. There, a community of fundamental families live in a stagnant, almost dreamy coexistence. They worship their ancestors, they ration the knowledge they disclose to one another, and only the Wanderers, male descendants of the original settlers, are allowed to leave the island and cross into the Wastelands.

The daughters of the island are essentially wives in training. Their sole freedom manifests in a few weeks each summer where they can run free as children and enjoy the nature around them. Menstruation ends this freedom for girls and instead, they must participate in a coming-of-age ceremony reminiscent of the Amish Rumspringa, if the Amish were less conservative about sex and the female body.

There is Vanessa, a daughter of a Wanderer who both loves and fears her father for reasons that slowly become horrifyingly apparent to the reader.

There’s Caitlin, who holds a secret she learns about the fate of the women who give birth to more than three “defective” children, but she does not know who she can trust to tell.

There’s Janey who refuses to eat so that she will not get her period, even at age 16. As long as she does not bleed, she doesn’t have to join the older women in their servitude.

There are dozens more girls like them, and the reader uncovers their pain in beautifully woven layers that are both surprising and eerily familiar.

Melamed succeeds in portraying these sheltered but traumatized girls so efficiently because of her own background. She is not a traditional author, in the sense that her education is rooted in science rather than humanities. Melamed is a psychiatric nurse practitioner that specializes in helping traumatized children. She weaves her compassion and her experience gathered from working with her young patients to invent truly multifaceted, believable, and harrowing characters that seem to live and breathe like you and me.

Gather the Daughters takes America’s rape culture and places it into a world of otherness so that its perversion is obvious. That’s what is so spectacular about this novel: this is a book that has something important to say about the way we treat women, the way we treat our girls, yet Melamed says this so deftly that you aren’t aware you’re being told anything until you’re too invested in the narrative to resist.

Melamed’s story is painful, it is cathartic, and it is truly one of the best books written in our era. I recommend Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters wholeheartedly and can say it is a book that will stay with you, long after the last page. I give it a solid 9.5 / 10, withholding a perfect score only because I wish the story was longer.

There are rumors of a follow-up novel in the works, but nothing solid as of yet. We’ll keep you posted if there will be another journey into the Wastelands and the island secluded from it all. For now though, do yourself a favor and clear your weekend so there’s nothing but a warm blanket and lots of coffee. Once you pick up Melamed’s debut novel, Gather the Daughters, you’re not going to want to put it down.

Featured Image by Anna Davis Abel

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