Margaret Atwood,
The Handmaid's Tale
(O.W. Toad Ltd, 1986;
First Anchor, 1998)

The Handmaid's Tale is told in the style of a diary, describing the fate of a woman forced to become a Handmaid in a United States that has been take over by a religious dictatorship. It is a cautionary tale in some ways, a work of social science fiction in others. In any case, the story is compelling and the protagonist sympathetic.

The reader never overtly learns the name of our protagonist; she is known as Offred, as all Handmaids are known by the names of the men they belong to. Only men highly placed in the new totalitarian government deserve Handmaids -- means to an end result of children who are growing increasingly scarce. While in training, the women designated to be Handmaids whisper their names in rebellion. Once placed, their duties include the daily marketing -- only in pairs, as a Handmaid cannot be without escort -- and participating in ritualized intercourse which does not always result in pregnancy.

The regimentation is painful for our protagonist, a sensitive, intelligent and strong woman, but she survives and even befriends Moira, a rebel who refuses to accept the subjugation of the society. Offred also forms an odd bond with the Commander, head of her household, who plays Scrabble with her, despite the injunction against women reading. Finally, it is the Wife in the household whose desperation for a child causes her to set up an illicit liason between her Handmaid and Nick, the Commander's chauffer.

This is a painful book to read on many levels. At one point is it a warning tale to women. The protagonist's mother was part of the feminist movement, but her daughter's generation took their rights for granted, and did not realize that those rights were being limited until it was too late. The political aspects are interesting, and I found myself comparing the government of Gilead with the agendas of groups such as Promise Keepers; this was frightening in some ways. As social science fiction, The Handmaid's Tale paints a picture of what can happen if people fall into indifference, trusting that things will remain the same. Unfortunately, none of us can afford this complacency.

This was not an easy book to read, but I found it rewarding. Well-written books that make the reader consider uncomfortable ideas are worth picking up, and The Handmaid's Tale is definitely not a comfortable book. Be prepared to think.

[ by Beth Derochea ]

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