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Forager : field notes on surviving a family cult
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Publishers Weekly Review
In this surprisingly plucky debut, journalism professor and essayist Dowd details her childhood in an apocalyptic Christian cult founded by her grandfather. On a mountain in California's Angeles National Forest, Dowd and her family survived off the land, read only the Bible, and performed in a traveling circus for the little money they needed to support themselves. For Dowd, however, God's love was less an embrace and more "like rounds of chemotherapy." When an autoimmune disorder shuffled her in and out of the hospital as a teenager, the outside world started to creep in, and cleaning jobs for clients on the outside further awakened her to the concept of home and the possibility that she might go to college. After going on a date to her first-ever movie with a former cult member, Dowd was excommunicated at age 17 and struck out on her own. Her choice to begin each chapter with field notes about the plant species that kept her alive during her childhood rises above gimmick, but her prose can be overwrought, and her too-general engagement with the cult's inner workings is frustrating. Still, this is an undeniably powerful saga of personal survival. Agent: Lucinda Halpern, Lucinda Literary. (Mar.)
Booklist Review
In this poignant memoir, journalist Dowd recounts her calamitous youth growing up in an apocalyptic cult. As the progeny of the cult's prophet, Dowd was expected to strictly adhere to all rules without question and learn how to survive in the wilderness. Affection, whether familial, platonic, or romantic, was forbidden. Outsiders were not to be trusted, even blood relatives. Dowd was subjected to starvation, neglect, and abuse as tests of strength and punishment for alleged misdeeds. In her early teens, Dowd was struck with a serious illness that left her hospitalized for long stretches of time. Throughout her recovery, she realized that escape was her only means of survival. Drawing on skills she learned from the cult, Dowd is ultimately able to break free. While the subject matter is heavy, Dowd's self-assured prose ensures that the reader is never crushed. Beautifully delicate illustrations and foraging tips also keep things bright. An inspiring and insightful tale of resilience in the face of adversity, this book is hard to put down.
Kirkus Review
A moving and intense tale of the author's experiences in an apocalyptic cult. "I grew up on a mountain, preparing for the Apocalypse," writes Dowd at the beginning of this enthralling narrative, which describes her upbringing in the 1970s and '80s in the Field, a religious cult founded by her grandfather in 1931. She spent her childhood preparing for the imminent end of days on "a sixteen-acre undeveloped camp sitting on the San Andreas Fault." As a young girl, she underwent extreme military training, tests of her pain tolerance, and months of abandonment by her parents, who were frequently on a national tour known as "the Trip." Forbidden to speak to "Outsiders," unless she was raising money for the Field, Dowd turned to the landscape for solace and survival, drawing on her substantial knowledge of edible flora. "Violence is everywhere, and no one around here seems to care, least of all the God of my fathers," she writes, delineating years of abuse, forced hunger, and neglect. Taught that holding hands out of wedlock is grounds for expulsion, and even affection between mother and child is sinful, she grew up without any outward indication of love. Certain that her family would readily sacrifice her if asked, she writes, "as descendants by blood, I think the only real distinction my cousins and I have from other leaders' kids is knowing Grandpa would kill us if God asks him to." Heartbreaking and difficult to put down, this book lyrically chronicles an impressive rise out of illness, poverty, and indoctrination. As she struggled with growing into a woman in an unsafe and patriarchal environment, Dowd realized she needed to escape. However, she notes, "freeing oneself is the first step; claiming ownership of that freed self has been a lifelong journey." Leaving the cult meant losing her family and understanding of the world, with only her ecological knowledge and mental toughness to carry her forward. A harrowing, engrossing story of survival amid painful circumstances. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
A moving, heartbreaking, and inspiring true story of the author's escape from an apocalyptic cult--and the deep understanding of the natural world that helped her find freedom.

My family prepared me for the end of the world, but I know how to survive on what the earth yields.

Michelle Dowd grew up on a mountain in the Angeles National Forest, born into an ultra-religious cult--the Field, as members called it--run by her grandfather, who believed that his chosen followers must prepare themselves to survive doomsday. Bound by the group's patriarchal rules and literal interpretation of the Bible, Michelle and her siblings lived a life of deprivation, isolated from Outsiders and starved for both love and food. She was forced to learn the skills necessary to battle hunger, thirst, and cold; she learned to trust animals more than humans; and most important, she learned how to survive by foraging for what she needed. And as Michelle got older, she realized she had the strength to break free. Focus on what will sustain, not satiate you , she would tell herself. Use everything. Waste nothing. Get to know the intricacies of the land like the intricacies of your body. And so she did.

With haunting and stark language, and illustrations of edible plants and their uses opening each chapter, Forager is a fierce and empowering coming-of-age story and a timely meditation on the ways in which harnessing nature's gifts can lead to our freedom.
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