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Book Response: Forager by Michelle Dowd

Forager by Michelle Dowd – ★★★★☆

Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult: A Memoir

Published by Algonquin Books, under Hatchette Book Group, on March 7, 2023. 

I was gifted a galley copy of Forager for volunteering with a group from Oregon State University’s Creative Writing Society at the Portland Book Festival last fall. This copy may differ slightly from the published version, so I apologize if any of the quotations from this write-up have been altered in the finalized copy. Dowd’s memoir Forager is a work of creative nonfiction that explores the childhood of a woman who escaped a cult that her grandfather founded. It is a coming-of-age story that questions who your family is, how religion shapes the world, and how to dismantle an unfair distribution of power. I loved the unique formatting of the field guide, which begins each chapter with a simply drawn depiction of an edible plant that Dowd would harvest to remain self-sufficient and a short description of how to do so. This works on multiple levels as the name of the cult is the Field, the plants helped lead to Dowd’s escape, and these chapters hold her secret for surviving within the Field, “. . . he’s suggesting that I can do more, that I can keep gnawing my way through this, that what I’ve been doing is a form of survival. I tell him I will stay alive long enough to find a way out” (237).

Even though Dowd faces many moments of isolation, a golden feature of the book is how she writes her relationships with her mother, father, sisters, “brothers,” and the world outside of the Field. A scene that is now forever lodged in my memory is when Dowd stands next to her father as a young girl and mimics him shaving his face with shaving cream and the lid of the razor on page 129, “He didn’t comment, but he held my gaze, and I felt something akin to respect. There was validation in the motions I had sequenced, almost tandem with his, the ritual of manhood like a handshake between us. Lizbeth tells me girls don’t shave their faces, but I don’t care. Our home is a man’s world, where strength rules, and I am proud that I have stood next to him doing what men do.” It emphasizes that, even as a child, Dowd knew who had power, who didn’t, and that she would have to adapt in order to survive. 

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About the Contributor
Jay Enghauser
Jay Enghauser, Editor-in-Chief
Jay Enghauser is the Assistant Editor of PRISM for the 2023-24 school year. They are a 5th year senior with a creative writing major (and two pets that they’re obsessed with). They transferred from Linn Benton Community College in the spring of 2022. On top of being a consumer of PRISM for the last few years, they are currently a consultant at the Undergraduate Research and Writing Studio and the secretary of the Creative Writing Society. In 2023 they were awarded the Bernard Malamud Memorial Scholarship for Creative Writing Majors and had an honorable mention for the Undergraduate Weaver Award for Poetry.

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    Alina KrollApr 10, 2024 at 12:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this book, Jay! I read the first few chapters, and I also liked the author’s choice to format the book in a field guide style. It transformed a dark topic into something readers could digest while also understanding how Dowd was able to survive and escape her family’s cult.