Neena Gathering by Valerie Neiman
(Permuted Press, 2013, ISBN 9781618681348, $14.95)
by Scott Holstad
This is not your typical dystopian novel. You can tell that on the first page. This is a book of fine prose, almost poetic at times. There’s a great deal of descriptive prose, flowery language. That might also be one of the book’s weaknesses. At times, the flowery language detracts from the descriptions of a post-apocalyptic America that has splintered into separate entities. Yes, America is no more. Even though nuclear bombs were banned, various new countries dropped “metachemicals” on each other, wiping entire cities out. Civilization is over.
The main character, Neena (Daneen) Daucherty, is an orphan from Baltimore who was with her mother when the carnage happened. That was roughly eight years ago. She’s been living with her Aunt Maura in the West Virginia hills ever since, learning to pick berries and herbs, gather roots and bark – all good for trading for such things as kerosene and ammunition. Life is difficult, but it’s made a bit more exciting when Uncle Ted shows up out of the blue. He’s a bit of a rebel, with a mysterious background that he doesn’t like to discuss. Ted convinces Maura to let him start distilling alcohol, allegedly for the purpose of its trading value, but more accurately it seems, so he can get drunk. Maura trades with the Barterman, a mysterious “Change” – someone who was there when the bombs were dropped, but survived, only to have his appearance ravaged. He now has a yellow hue to him. Ted hates and fears the Barterman, who witnesses Ted murdering an alleged thief in the woods.
Meanwhile, Neena is growing up. She appears to be about 14 years old, and Ted notices her physical changes. There’s a disturbing feeling of incestuous thoughts running through the novel, and Ted likes to touch Neena, to have him sit on his lap, and she sometimes thinks about it herself. She’s aware of the changes in her, but grows increasingly distressed about Ted, particularly when she witnesses Ted trying to talk Maura into letting him have his way with Neena. Frankly, the scene is fairly disturbing.
Neena has flashbacks at times. Passes out and remembers things from war-torn Baltimore. However, even though the cities are dead and there are scavengers marauding about the countryside, Neiman often doesn’t give us a really good look at it. Instead, we’re treated to intricate descriptions of plants and trees, of nature, of growth and survival. We’re introduced to the family oxen. We see bark being stripped so it can be bartered away. This gives one a feeling of ease instead of the sense of unease the book should possibly be engendering. I think this is one of the book’s weaknesses. You can tell Neiman is a poet, however, because the language, as mentioned, is often poetic, and because poetry plays such a prominent role in the book. Ted introduces Neena to poetry, which she grows to enjoy. Later in the book, Arden, the Barterman, continues Neena’s growth in learning to enjoy poetry.
Midway through the book, Aunt Maura and Neena take a trip to visit the Barterman to trade with him when Maura falls through a hole hidden in the ground, presumably by scavengers bent on evil. At Maura’s urging, Neena goes to the Barterman’s house for help. He comes to save Maura, but Ted shows up too. A fairly climactic scene occurs when Ted reaches for Neena, but Neena pulls away and lets everyone know she’s going to go live with the Barterman now. Ted is livid, and this is a pretty mystifying passage, I must say. Why? Because Neena has had nothing to do with the Barterman before; she doesn’t even know him. Yet she trusts him over her own family. I guess that should tell the reader how much she distrusts and fears her uncle by now, but it’s still somewhat unbelievable to a certain degree.
So Neena goes to live with the Barterman, whose name she finds out is Arden. He’s a former English professor from DC who survived the bombs and came to live in the countryside by himself. He’s a large man, and as a Change, is feared by most. However, Neena is able to see beyond that and comes to love this intelligent, nurturing individual, as well as his big dog. This seems to be a case of Beauty and the Beast in a post-apocalyptic world, but it works. Nieman weaves a linguistic spell that makes it both beautiful and believable. The one disappointment from this union is the night they finally make love. The description is rather limp and disappoints. It’s there, it’s happening, it’s over in a sentence or two. We assume they’re happy. It’s also fair to note that another disturbing aspect to this scene is Neena’s still an adolescent, and Arden knows that. Statutory rape, anyone?
Apparently, though, they are happy because Neena winds up pregnant. She tells her aunt who says she’ll be there for the birth if she can – not much of a family promise – but she does show up, so kudos to her. Meanwhile, a traveler who comes to trade with Arden tells of seeing Ted going to a fanatical and violent religious commune, where he’s baptized in the river and his throat is then cut. Neeena mourns. Surprisingly, so does Arden, although I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps he feels badly for Neena, because he certainly didn’t like Ted.
The book climaxes in the birth of their child, a girl named Rainelle. The final line of the book gives hope to the reader and the couple: “’Our future,’ he said. ‘Rainelle’s waiting for us.’” While that is an interesting ending to the book, it was sudden and it surprised me. I thought there would be more and didn’t realize the book was coming to its closure. As I’ve pondered it, though, I’ve concluded that the ending is fairly satisfying, that we don’t have to know everything that happens down the road, that we’re given hope for the future and that is enough, just as Nieman intends.
I would not put this book at the top of my favorite dystopian novels (Philip K. Dick takes top honors for me), but it is somewhat unique in its treatment of such fare, and as such, deserves to be read. It’s a good book, written by a talented writer – one featured in Ray’s Road Review as a poet before. One of her talents lies in character development, something Dick never really mastered. (So maybe she’s better?) Another is her obvious love of language and its use. I just wish the book hadn’t been so language-intensive at the beginning, because it was difficult to get into. The book plodded at first, but once past those first pages and on into later chapters, the author successfully captures your attention and holds it. It’s a good story and one that she tells pretty well. I’m not certain that this book is for everyone, but because it’s not straight sci fi, it might be more accessible for more readers, and that’s a good thing. This is a book that’s recommended.
About Scott C. Holstad
Scott Holstad is the poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review.