Review of Forager by Michelle Dowd @AlgonquinBooks

If you thought it was tough trying to get away from a cult you voluntarily joined, imagine what it’s like when your family is that cult.

Blurb: 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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There have been many times when I have read a non-fiction work and have had a very difficult time wrapping my head around its reality. Frequently, people who are searching for something fall under the spell of a pied piper, an individual who makes so many enticing claims that they seemingly have no choice. In this case, Michelle Dowd’s grandfather was the pied piper promising a paradisal afterlife if all of his sheep followed him in the here-and-now and then on into the Kingdom of God.

As is the case in many strict religions (and elsewhere), women are subordinate to the men, treated like possessions rather than human beings, and are meant not to forget their place in the pecking order. This is the world that Dowd was born into and lived from childhood until she managed to escape.

In Forager, Dowd begins each chapter with a plant that one can use to survive if one has no other means. She describes its features and usefulness and then somewhere in that chapter that plant has a role.

Dowd’s mother, although born into her father’s cult and never one to talk against it, had more freedom than other women. She was permitted to be a guide with forest rangers, providing information on the foliage of the park. Dowd was fascinated by this information and wanted to learn as much as she could, but her mother, distant and sometimes unapproachable, didn’t encourage her daughter. In fact, she frequently dissuaded her daughter. She also turned a blind eye to the violent abuse that her daughter received at the hands of Dowd’s father. There was not much love in this so-called Christian community.

It’s obvious that Dowd was born to be the black sheep. She questioned. She owned her independence when she could. And, perhaps most importantly she observed inequities.

It is difficult, frustrating even, to read about Michelle Dowd’s childhood, how a female child can be treated this way in a country that pounces on the atrocities committed against women in other countries. Physical abuse was not questioned. A father could backhand his child without consequences and perhaps was even encouraged in order to keep young children from becoming wayward. There was a hint that although children like Dowd received unwanted sexual attention that those culprits were dealt with, or, at least, one was.

While Dowd’s book is difficult reading, her prose is not. She does write of beautiful things, things she’s seen as well as her affinity for nature. She tells an inspirational story. Her life. Her resilience. Her ever-questioning nature that brought her to a keen understanding of the world around her and most particularly the people around her. I would have loved some glimpse into her current life to know how it all turned out, but perhaps there is more to come.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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