The Land of Abused Women and Children

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

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When a Novel Might be Better as a Series

The People We Hate at the Wedding

By Grant Ginder

For a novel trumpeted in the jacket copy as hilarious, you’ll find the humor sporadic and often deprecating, both self and towards others. But you would probably expect such from a cast of characters, mother Donna, deceased father Bill, son Paul, daughter Alice, and Donna’s daughter from a previous marriage Eloise, who are less than likable (except maybe for Eloise and her overly nice and supremely contented fiancee Ollie). Everybody has issues with each other; everybody has issues with themselves; everybody, except for mellow Ollie, is wildly neurotic. Imagine them together at Eloise’s wedding and you picture something riotously funny or riotously bloody. Regrettably, you’ll not get much of either in the end here. To boot, everything proves too predictable.

The story turns on a deeply held family secret kept by Donna about Paul and his father Bill to protect Paul from a harsh and painful truth, known only by one other person, Eloise. From this stems much of the anger, resentment, and neurotic behavior in the novel. Settings are L.A., St. Charles, IL (you don’t see this much in novels), Philadelphia, London and Dorset. The novel features some explicit sexual scenes not everybody will be happy to encounter, though they are critical to Paul’s story. And sorry to report, but Paul’s tale revolves around some pretty unfortunate gay stereotyping.

In its favor, this is the type of novel that could make a compelling cable or streaming limited series in the hands of the right producers and showrunner, perhaps, if we’re lucky, like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which was very popular in print and on HBO. w/c

Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c