The Natural Way of Things
Review by Jarad Johnson
There are so many wonderful things that I would like to say about this book, and so many important messages, that it’s hard to know where to start. Let me then begin with a question: What defines you? What is the essence that marks you as a person? Are these markers internal or external, perhaps a little of both? Many of my personal markers are external: dark eyes and nails, colorful clothing, et cetera. These are commonly referred to as, “gender markers,” or things that we decorate ourselves with to characterize us as male or female, or to perhaps flagrantly violate these expectations. This idea of the external factors that make us male or female is integral to the novel, where the author explores the way in which rape culture treats the victims, and the relationship that humankind has with the natural world.
The novel itself has so many fascinating and important messages, but the plot itself is also superbly done. I read this book in three days, and for those three days I was engulfed within the novel; I couldn’t put it down. It centers around a group of women, all who have been involved in high profile sex scandals, who are kidnapped and sent to a work camp. Their hair is shaved and they are made to labor over the construction of a road, not with modern tools and amenities, but with their bare hands. Their wardens are two awful men, Boncer and Teddy, who continually harass and demean them, both verbally and physically. They are made to sleep in kennels, and, even though the book hints that this takes place in the modern world, there are no modern luxuries to be found here. Without giving too much away, I’ll only say that these women are debased in a way that would be abhorrent to even the staunchest misogynist, although I doubt that they would see the parallels. It is, at times, difficult to read, but well worth it.
This concept of the camp and the degradation of the women is a commentary on the way in which women are, “slut-shamed,” rape victims are accused of bringing the violence on themselves, celebrities are threatened and harassed online, and in extreme cases, women are murdered in the name of honor. This horrific behavior is a stark reminder that female sexuality, and the extreme measures to, “control,” it, remain volatile in nearly every culture.
Although the book makes some extremely important and sadly relevant points, there is a point where it could seem slightly dogmatic; however, through Wood’s vivid descriptive voice, it is most certainly not. Detail is important here; the reader is given vivid descriptions of nearly everything around the captives, but it’s not written in such a way that the reader perceives that this is what the character is experiencing, rather that the reader experiences every emotion and blow and atrocity along with the characters.
There are two characters who clue the reader into the books title. Yolanda and Verla, two of the women most changed by the experience, challenge their captor’s dominion over them. Boncer and Teddy believe that it’s natural for men to lord over women; however, these two recreate themselves in their confinement, developing a new way of living and thinking that is more deeply in tune with the natural order, and through this transformation they dispel the historical image of women’s subservience. One of the most the fascinating sub-plots in the book is Yolanda’s story and transformation. It’s truly interesting to see her progression and how she distances herself from her former self.
The book also examines internalized sexism, and how detrimental that can be in the struggle for equality. Throughout the novel, the girls repeatedly use the derogatory language that is often employed by their captors. Even though they are all in the same situation together, for much of the book they are at odds with each other. Instead of standing in solidarity, they separate into cliques and constantly berate each other.
Overall, this is one of the best books that I’ve read this year, perhaps the best. I adore it, especially since it’s so relevant, and because the plot is amazing. It’s a reminder that, even though the Feminist and Equality movements have pushed us forward, there is still so much to do. Political engagement is more necessary than in previous years, and social awareness, however exhausting, is essential. It’s easy to brush aside all the repugnant things that have been happening if they don’t affect you, but I guarantee that they affect those around you, as the book points out. The novel also reminds us that gender expectations and roles, i.e. standards of beauty and the like, are relevant only if you want them to be. We are not made male or female by makeup and nail polish alone. In fact, these things really are not gender-specific, unless we make them that way. And personally, I’m getting tired of being told what I can and cannot wear.
Jarad attends Middle Tennessee State University, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is majoring in English. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!