Monday, June 22, 2009

No. 37: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is the end of all happiness. I used to think that the movie Cold Mountain (which made me want to throw myself off a cliff) was the end of all happiness, but now I know better. Cold Mountain, meet The Handmaid's Tale. You've been dethroned.

Set it a post apocalyptic-ish America (now called Gilead and run by Christian zealots), the world is massively infertile. Women who can still bear children, or "handmaids," are valuable commodities and are given to high ranking couples to produce children for them. The book is narrated by Offred (literally "Of-Fred, or "belonging to Fred"), a handmaid whose pragmatic response to the turmoil in her society is both spooky and compelling. The book is depressing as hell and portions of it are squirm inducing in the extreme. It's also brilliant.

Part of why it's so upsetting is that it's plausible. If the conditions that scary Atwood imagines existed (and we smashed our Constitution into bite sized chunks and fed it to our dogs) The Handmaid's Tale isn't that far fetched.

Critics claim the book is depressing. Yeah, but so is The Scarlet Letter and I had to read that. It's also cited as too sexually explicit for minors. Sex in Gilead isn't fun for anyone, readers or participants. It's only for procreation and the way they do it is the grossest, least sexy, most squick-worthy Ménage à Trois, like, ever. Critics also take issue with the book's treatment of women (whose lives are the suck), Christianity (depicted at its ugly extreme), and believe it or not, Islam (the women are veiled and polygamy is accepted). Gentle Readers, I submit that these very complaints are the point of this book.

Here's the deal, America. The Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary tale about fundamentalist totalitarianism, fascism, backlash against feminism, and all kinds of other nasty things that could happen if we all stopped caring about... basically everything. Should a 12-year old read it? No. Should a 17-year old read it? Sure. It's got mature themes but aren't the late teens the point in life when kids are supposed to start thinking expansively and examine their world? If the answer to that is "No," then stock libraries with nothing but Hello Kitty and I'll go watch TV.

I do have one major complaint about this book (and notice that I'm complaining and not screaming "burn this book" to anyone who will listen). Atwood, a Canadian, set her story in America. In case you didn't know it, those are totally different countries (one in which Atwood lives and the other in which she doesn't). I say, keep your dystopian nightmarish future society vibes in your own country. Seriously. Don't you think we have enough to worry about already? Among the war in Iraq, idiot white supremacists opening fire at the Holocaust museum, the OctoMom and all kinds of other crazy crap we're quite busy. Fending off your mental super whammy, is really not on our national agenda. To balance the cosmic scales, I am going to have to write a scary story and set it in Canada. The things I do for you people.


  1. I loved this story so much! One of my favorites.

    Terrific review, Kim.


  2. The Handmaid's Tale is a curious story but one that I love. If I recall, some forms of Christianity are attacked as well by the fundamentalists as well. It's been awhile since I've read or even thought of this one but remarkably the movie was in the middle of the night a few days ago. I generally agree with you, how stupid are people to attempt to ban this book? That's what the f'in story is about in many ways. All I can say is f'in stupid...sorry.

    Once again...I am in awe of your pennings, Kim.

  3. I know, right? Most of these bannings are from parents who don't want their kids to read a particular book. Well, fine... if you don't want your kids to read it, don't let them read it, but don't stop MY kids (you know, if I had kids) from reading it.

    So seriously... what are teenagers supposed to read these day? Happy little safe books that turn their minds to oatmeal or books that make them dream/feel/think/question their worlds?