Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult is a new memoir by Michelle Dowd. This was a bizarre read for me. I think I was expecting something like Tara Westover's Educated or Jeannette Wall's The Glass Castle. I think it's the subtitle that makes this especially bizarre for me, because there's not really anything about the cult or about how the narrator escapes the life of her family. Instead, it's a collection of vignettes of abuse and starvation in an unexplained doomsday cult, mixed with literal field notes on foraging bark and leaves.
I felt like I was just reading hints the whole time. There's never actually any clear information about the cult's beliefs or habits or history. Well, that's not entirely true, we know it's a cult that requires bridal virginity and a cult where men and boys run around unchecked, pretty much constantly abusing children, and girls are explicitly taught to go along silently and not make a fuss. But we don't really see anyone trying to make sense of this, and we don't really get the narrator's thoughts about this. There's not a lot about living with the knowledge that you and your family were destined for heaven, but everyone else wasn't. At one point, there's a quick reference to eating fast food that left me with endless question -- did she have any feelings about eating food, knowing that the cook and the cashier were destined for eternal torment?
There are so many scenes of abuse, loneliness, neglect, cruelty, deprivation, physical pain, starvation, illness, etc., etc., to the point where's it's incredible to imagine that even a fraction is true, but I felt like we never got any emotions or reactions or thoughts about it. There are these absolutely horrific moments of physical abuse, and then she decides to disassociate from her body, and ignores it, and she's silently tough, and the story moves on to another horrible moment.
Sometimes I have trouble reviewing memoirs, and this is exactly why: while I read, part of my brain is screaming This is awful child abuse! How could anyone live this way? while the other part is wondering why the narrative isn't particularly compelling. I didn't see growth and change, which is always what I need to care about a character. Our narrator starts out abused and silently tough, and over the course of the book, the abuse changes, and she's still silently tough about it. I wanted some explanation of why she wanted college or how she got there, but even the pivotal moment of a Quitter's encouragement felt vague. I didn't see personal reflection, see previous re: silent and tough. The adult characters remained mysteries to me, I still never understood the cult, the family relationships, or how the Outside adults never reacted to her injuries and filth.
In narrative non-fiction, I'm reading for true events that (eventually) connect and lead to a conclusion. It doesn't need to be a major conclusion -- I really enjoy the kind of quiet personal narratives that lead to a quiet personal discovery. But I do need the narrative go somewhere.
Often, when there was a dramatic scene, I was unable to picture it. Was she wearing the homemade pillowcase dresses in the hospital? Who were the Eriksons? How are they filling their days on the Mountain? How does her mother's regular job fit into their beliefs? There's a reference to the Quitters, people who lived temporarily in the Field and then decided not to stay, but it's never explained how the rampant abuse and violence attracts any new members. Parts of this book were vague enough that I Googled to see if this was a sequel and I'd missed the explanation.
I had been excited to read this because mushroom hunting is my weird pandemic habit. I haven't actually gotten brave enough to eat my fungi finds, mostly I just like searching. I love learning about edible and medical plants, it's one of my favorite parts of the farm shows. So it was the field notes, little descriptions and commentary on edible plants, that was more interesting to me. These explanations of how to extract nutrients from difficult plants and trees make an artistic match for the personal story of hardship and abuse.
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