Every dystopia needs a gimmick—some hook to distinguish it from the ever-expanding constellation of literary post-apocalypses. Seattle writer Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters is a dystopian novel that remixes several pre-existing gimmicks into one. Melamed’s influences are listed right there in a blurb on its front cover as written by Helene Wecker, who calls it “an heir to the creations of Margaret Atwood and Shirley Jackson”—about as succinct an observation as you can fit into a blurb. Gather the Daughters travels in a straight line through Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Jackson’s “The Lottery,” noting elements with a magpie’s eye as it proceeds.
Daughters takes place on an island off the coast of a ruined civilization. It’s been fairly stable for most of recent memory. An elite team of wanderers travel occasionally to the mainland, to pick up useful goods from the supposedly burned world. Every couple on the island is permitted two children, and boys are heavily favored over girls. Women are tolerated solely for their breeding capabilities; in marriage they are property, and once they pass child-rearing age they commit suicide. The dust-jacket synopsis of Daughters isn’t really enough to distinguish it from all the other doomsday scenarios clotting up bookshelves.
But Daughters has a secret weapon. Dystopias are especially useful literary tools because they help dominant social groups empathize with the day-to-day experiences of minority groups. (I’m not the first person to point out that the indignities suffered by the white protagonists of most dystopias have almost all been suffered by minorities at some point in the history of the world.) Melamed, a nurse practitioner whose bio identifies her chosen field as “working with traumatized children,” is using her dystopia to speak out on behalf of abused girls, and she does it masterfully.
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Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com.