Catching up on reading: The Handmaid's Tale

We all have books we've been intending to read for years, yet somehow have not yet managed to pick up; at least, I hope I'm not alone in this affliction. After a couple of decades of intending to read The Handmaid's Tale, I finally gave Margaret Atwood's masterpiece a long overdue read. I'm glad I did. Look, this book's been out for almost thirty years, so I can't really tell you anything about it that hasn't already been said. All I can do is remind you that you've been meaning to read it, if you haven't already, or maybe that you should read it again. You ought to pick up a copy or do the clicky-clicky on my link above to buy it and read it.

Did I mention that this book has been out for nearly thirty years? That timeline matters, you see, because my life thirty years ago explains why I didn't even know about it then; why I didn't know about it when it first came out explains a bit of why I think The Handmaid's Tale still matters today.

When The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985, I was a high school kid in a small and conservative town in the Ozarks. In just a couple more years, Pat Robertson for President signs would start sprouting all over town, but the fusion of religious and political fervor Atwood took to its logical (and happily fictional) conclusion in telling the story of "Offred" already gripped my little community.

To be fair, I don't think anyone in town actively suppressed Atwood's work. I was already such a contrarian that if our own local version of the Moral Majority had denounced the book I would have driven hours to buy a copy from my own meager funds (I'm serious: that's how I wound up reading Lolita). The sad truth is that no one in my small community knew about Atwood's dangerous little book, which ultimately is the entire point of Gilead requiring the lettered signage to be replaced with pictures. With no one to object to The Handmaid's Tale within my earshot, and certainly no one to support it, I didn't know I wanted to read it until I was in college in the early 90's, by which time first physics problem sets and then a career and children restricted my reading time.

Perhaps my personal experience from when this book was fresh and new accounts for how I found myself surprised by one plot detail I had not learned before I actually read the book. In order to create Atwood's dystopian Gilead, a subtle violent overthrow of the US government was required. Having witnessed firsthand the success politicians can achieve by promising to impose religious order upon the heathens, the notion orchestrating a mass assassination of political leaders in order to suspend the Constitution struck me as somehow quaint. The forces of Gilead would not necessarily have required weapons to impose a plan concocted with the shrewdness of vipers in order to seize control of government--a simple election campaign might have sufficed.

My surprise at only the means of afflicting society with Gilead's terrible morality speaks poorly of the intervening years I have witnessed, to be sure, but it does justify the enduring importance of Atwood's novel. We were closer to the dystopian society imagined by Atwood than we dreamed, and likely remain closer to that society than we fear. The The Handmaid's Tale remains regrettably relevant.