One of the biggest hits on television this past year has been the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the book of which has also been a bestseller (again). Perhaps there’s something in the zeitgeist that leads to the proliferation of dystopias. One of the newest, and one that should especially appeal to people who appreciate The Handmaid’s Tale, is Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed.
There has been some kind of horrible catastrophe in the outside world long before the book starts, and most of the world has been turned into an incinerated wasteland. Here on this island, however, ten men and their families set up a colony years before, creating a new society with appalling (to me, at least) rules and roles. The religion is a sort of ancestor worship, information is strictly restricted, and breeding tightly controlled. Only special descendants of the original ten settlers, called Wanderers, are allowed to leave the island and explore the wastelands outside, searching for salvageable detritus.
Women have one role in this society: to bear children. As soon as a girl reaches puberty, she begins her Summer of Fruition, a ritual designed to take her from adolescence to matrimony, and then she starts bearing children until she’s no longer useful, and then she commits ritualized suicide.
The younger children, the ones who haven’t yet reached adolescence, get to run wild for the summers, their older sisters either married or in their Summers of Fruition, their parents indoors. They do whatever they want, roaming the island, fighting over food and shelter and precedence, and then, one summer, young Caitlin Jacobs sees something she shouldn’t, something terrifying and against all the laws of the island.
She takes this information to Janey Solomon, a 17 year old leader by nature who’s so opposed to the prospect of marrying and becoming a breeder that she’s been starving herself to death. She urgently sets out to find out the truth about Caitlin’s discovery while she’s still capable of doing so, and she prepares the girls to rebel against the system, even though that might be the death of them all.
There’s something horrible but intriguing about a society that bears some resemblance to aspects of our own (if you think I’m exaggerating, try Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer), carried to a nightmarish extreme. What would you do? How would you survive in such a world? Read Gather the Daughters and imagine for yourself how that society would work and what you’d do to accommodate yourself (or not) to it.