Gather the Daughters
By Jennie Melamed
Jennie Melamed’s debut novel Gather the Daughters could not be more timely as it comes on the heels of the #MeToo movement, the Weinstein case, and a U.S. president with a history of abusing women, not to mention supporting others doing the same. In Melamed’s novel, the abuse begins early, with the male members of her fictional patriarchal religious cult having sex with their daughters prior to puberty, before turning these children over to other men for marriage and child bearing shortly after puberty. All this is done in the service of escaping and living free of what they call “the wasteland,” that is, our modern world, and perpetuating an isolated primitive agrarian and tradesman barter society. This cult featuring sexual abuse is not without real life precedent. One has only to recall some recent infamous examples, among them David Berg’s Children of God, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, and Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Melamed paints the full picture of her fictional patriarchal cult through the eyes of a handful of girls on the verge of puberty. Janey proves the most rebellious. She is older then the others, slowly starving herself like an anorexia to forestall her puberty. She doesn’t want to end up like the other girls, married off immediately after puberty in what’s called the summer of fruition. These married off girls begin having babies immediately, though by the law of the religion they can only have two healthy children. That means they are mothers and women of the community when they are thirteen or so. Their mothers, then, are women in their mid to late twenties. There are no grandparents, because once people reach the end of their usefulness, they drink the draft and take their place buried in the fields. Janey leads the girls in a rebellion, which consists of leaving their homes, living on the beach, and foraging for their existence. Obviously, as the leaders, called Wanders (those who travel off the island for needed supplies), know this cannot go on forever. Vanessa is another girl with her doubts and own quieter rebellious tendency. Her father is one of the Wanders and, unlike his counterparts, is thoughtful and kind. You might even like him, if you can put out of your mind that he sleeps with his daughter. Crisis arrives in the form of a contagious illness that sweeps through this society, killing many, necessitating that the wanders seek new members from the outside. In some ways, the illness proves fortuitous, as all the island inbreeding has resulted in increasing defective birth.
What you have here are men exerting absolute control over women and children by isolating them, instilling discipline and fear by tailoring a religion to their desire, and by engaging in acts of abuse, rape, pedophilia, and murder. It’s not a pretty tale, but some may regard it as an exaggerated metaphor of how men have treated women over the ages. Pastor Saul sums up matters nicely after the great bout with disease and the restocking of the island with new recruits in his sermon, attributing the suffering to disobeying the ancestors:
“As I look upon us, I can see the reasons for their displeasure. We have strayed from them. We have strayed from their vision and their holiness. We clot up the minds of our daughters with useless knowledge, instead of taking the precious time to teach them to be a solace to their fathers. Wives have forgotten how to be a support to their husbands. We let our aged live too long, past their prime years, for the simple reason that our hearts are soft. Men are swayed by the words of women, by the words of wives and daughters who refuse to submit to their will as wives and daughters should.”
Well done about a world rational people would run screaming from. And, yet, these little worlds in degrees exist today. w/c