I have been off the hook this week on travel, so I’ve made little writing progress and have neglected my poor website, but I did finish reading The Handmaid’s Tale and what a read it was!
The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, is a near future dystopian novel set in what was once the United States but at the time of this tale is called the Republic of Gilead. The Republic of Gilead was birthed when a powerful group of ultra conservative religious types overthrew the American government in response to social unrest and declining birth rates among the upper crust white American population.
It is an unforgettable story about race, gender, and at its core, about power.
The story is told through the character Offred, in the early stages of social reconstruction. She is no longer allowed to read, yet of course remembers how; is not allowed to show skin even on the hottest of summer days while of course remembering summer days in a light t-shirt and shorts; and she is a handmaid – a woman who remains fertile and as such is a highly sought after commodity rented by the powerful elite in order to bear them children – and has no say in who she is rented out too.
What I found most haunting about this novel is the very realistic and dramatic societal shifts that happened almost over night. The coup d’etat was swift and sure while the bulk of the population swooned in shocked complacency unable to believe what was happening even while the heavy wet wool blanket was being pulled over their eyes. As Offred put it, “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
And most disturbing was the effectiveness and thoroughness of the subjugation and the impact this had on a once thriving and capable woman. Forbidden from speaking to one another, not allowed names, unable to drive or read. Punishment swift and severe – hanging. Or a beating. And the engagement of individuals within the social group being controlled in order to do the controlling.
The Handmaid’s Tale may be a dystopian fantasy, but it hit far to close to home for my comfort. This felt much more like a horror novel, an exploration of what hell must be like for people everywhere, and an exploration of what some in this country seem to be seeking even now.
2012 saw legislation across this country that weakened the Violence Against Women Act, several states attempting to pass (or passing, in some cases) laws preventing women access to even medically necessary abortions or for cases of rape, incest or severe health issues with the fetus. There have been repeated attacks on Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides much needed access to basic female health needs as well as education and family planning services. Additional attempts at redefining ‘life’ could make standard birth control methods such as the IUD or birth control pills illegal – dramatically impairing a woman’s ability to make healthy decisions about her future.
Most of these have been blocked by responsible and reasonable members of our government and community, but many states have not been so lucky and have seen a dramatic regression in women’s access to the most basic of things. The most recent presidential election seemed to indicate an awakening toward these issues, but the momentum seems in large part to have waned once Obama was elected.
The truly terrifying thing about Atwood’s novel is just how close we are to a very similar fate. And that my friends, kept me up at night chewing my fingernails to nubs, as I read through this excellent novel.
An absolute thumbs up. A compelling story that keeps you reading well into the night, characters who break your heart, and a setting that is as chilling as any horror story I’ve ever encountered… The Handmaid’s Tale is a must read.
If you’d like to hear more you can find the book on Amazon, or you can visit Atwood’s website here.