I think most people have at least one book, if not many, that have taken up permanent residence on the TBR shelf. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books for me. It’s like when people move to a town for school/work/family thinking “oh I’ll just be here for a year or two” and then suddenly 10 years have gone by and you are registered to vote there. Handmaid was a registered voter on my TBR shelf, not because I was avoiding it, but mostly because there was always something higher on the list, more urgently in need of my attention. But nothing rearranges one’s TBR list like a school assignment, so Handmaid finally got her day in the sun!
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
I’ve read a lot of dystopic literature; dystopias got really popular within the last few years, what with the recent revival (pun intended) of zombie lit. However, as scary as the idea of zombies can be, what’s scarier to me is the thought of things that could actually happen, like the downfall of society and the oppression of women back into subservient roles. In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale was a truly disturbing depiction of the possible demise of America and the freedom that we all take for granted today.
The book begins… slowly. Details are secreted away and gradually worked into the story through flashbacks and memories. Offred’s former life sounds as though it was pretty typical by today’s standards, but the power and oppression of the new government have changed her daily reality into a test of her possible contribution to society. She is one of the few women (after some radiation episode) who may still be fertile; she can either produce a child for the master of her household, or she will be sent away, likely to her death, since he has proven her lack of ability and worth.
I will not turn this post into a rant on women’s rights. Atwood’s ability far outreaches my own, so just read it yourself. Suffice it to say, however, that she manages to show how fragile our security in our freedom could be, and how it really only takes fear and violence to reduce people to a status that we currently think impossible. Atwood makes readers think about the dangers of blindly following orders, the risks in challenging those orders, and the necessity for basic human rights and freedom. As is to be expected, many of the characters are loathsome, while others are “reminiscent” of the freedom of speech and personality that people enjoy today. This was one of those books that had my emotions riding roller coasters; there were few moments of joy, but there was plenty of intrigue, fear, anger, manipulation, and mystery. By no means is this a “feel good book;” I doubt I’d even recommend it as a summer read, since the book just feels grey. However, the lack of bouncy playfulness does not equal a lack of meaning, so do yourself a favor and read it.
Now, it is worth noting that when reading a book of my own choosing, my rule of thumb is that there are far too many books to waste time on one I don’t like, so I give it 50 pages to snag me. I kid you not, this book did not interest me until page 134. After that, it was unexpected, thought-provoking, challenging, uncomfortable, hopeful, and profound. While the first 134 pages took me days of self-motivation and boredom, the remainder of the book took 1 day of utter fascination. It started on an express train towards 1 star and suddenly and surprisingly earned itself 4 stars. If you can make it through the first part, you’ll be rewarded with the second part.
Regardless, this is a valuable read. Not only is it a “classic,” but it is as relevant today as it has ever been, what with the upcoming electoral candidates. Yipes. This would be a great book for a student interested in feminism or politics, and might do well paired with other political dystopic texts, like 1984 or The Time Machine. I will absolutely have this one in my classroom!