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Know the West

A fictional Gilead in the Northwest

Two authors imagine societies with draconian policies against women.


If ever a time were ripe for cautionary tales, it’s now.

The increase in sales since last November of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is not the only evidence of renewed interest in feminist dystopian literature. Several acclaimed recent novels — witness Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus and Naomi Alderman’s The Power — present detailed depictions of women responding to the ravages of war, catastrophic climate change and civil unrest.

Two new novels by Northwestern writers — both of them begun before the Trump presidency — gaze into the near future and share disturbing visions of how society might seek to further control women and their bodies. Both have been compared to Atwood’s work, but Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed and Red Clocks by Leni Zumas have their own unique takes on sex, religion, family and politics.

Set on an island in what is perhaps Puget Sound, Washington, Gather the Daughters concentrates on teen girls living in isolation, ruled by their ancestor-worshiping fathers. Each summer, the children run wild on the island, fighting each other for food and shelter. Pubescent girls later spend a “summer of fruition,” in which they are steered toward future husbands who will have complete authority over their lives.

The points of view switch between a handful of teenaged characters. Janey starves herself to prevent puberty. Bookish Vanessa loves Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and wonders whether there might be a place where she might stride “through snowy emptiness with bristling, savage wolves at her side.” Pregnant Amanda despairs at the prospect of raising her daughter on the island.

Just as the leaders of Atwood’s theocratic autocracy demand that the Handmaids subject themselves to passionless intercourse to continue the species, in Gather the Daughters women are valued primarily for their ability to breed.

With her debut novel, Melamed, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, excels in conveying the deep implications of abusive relationships. In Gather the Daughters, sexual intercourse between father and daughter is not only condoned, but required.

Eventually, the girls rebel, hiding in the forest and living on the beach. They are forcibly dragged home and beaten, but they continue their protests nevertheless. “We’re small and they can force us to do anything they want,” Vanessa says. To which Janey replies, “But they can’t stop us from thinking.”

The cost of resistance is high, though. When circumstances worsen, Janey says, “I’m not sure of anything. But we need to stop believing everything we’ve been told. And I don’t just mean us.”

Set in a small fishing town on the Oregon coast, Red Clocks is the second novel by Zumas, a professor of creative writing at Portland State University. Although much lighter in tone than Gather the Daughters, Red Clocks shares with Melamed’s book a sense of the Pacific Northwest’s natural lushness and its darker, more mysterious side.

In Zumas’ future, the Personhood Amendment has passed, abortion is illegal in the U.S., in vitro fertilization has been banned and every embryo has been granted the right to life, liberty and property. Women once traveled to Canada to terminate their pregnancies, but now border agents return them to the States to face murder conspiracy charges.

The points of view in Red Clocks rotate through a half-dozen characters, but the protagonist seems to be a 40-ish teacher, Ro, who spends a fortune on dubious fertility treatments while writing the biography of an obscure female polar explorer.

Meanwhile, one of her best students, Mattie, discovers she is pregnant and has no idea what to do. Ro muses, “She couldn’t believe the Personhood Amendment had become real with all these citizens so against it. Which (the disbelief) was stupid. She knew — it was her job as a teacher of history to know — how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight, against the will of the people.”

The men who make the rules are mainly off-stage, running — and ruining — the lives of others from a distance. But Zumas’s female characters are resourceful in the ways they resist. Although it has a serious message about how women are valued by society, Red Clocks is essentially a comedy, using humor to highlight the absurdities of authoritarianism and to celebrate self-determination.

At the end of the book, Ro makes a list of things she wants. It reads in part:

“To go to the protest in May.

To do more than go to a protest.

To be okay with not knowing...

To see what is.

And to see what is possible.”

Like Atwood before them, Melamed and Zumas have tapped into a newly resurgent literary tradition, one less prophetic than cautionary. They and many of their fellow writers of speculative fiction convey the need to be alert to injustice — and to be prepared to act against it.

As protest placards at the Trump inauguration implored, “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!”

Gather the Daughters
Jennie Melamed
336 pages, hardcover: $26. Little, Brown, 2017

Red Clocks
Leni Zumas
368 pages, hardcover: $26. Lee Boudreux Books, 2018