Why I’m (re)reading *The Handmaid’s Tale* – and I’d love to have you join me

The things that scare me most aren’t monsters and fantasy creatures – they’re things that really could happen. In that framework, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in its year of publication, The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic of speculative fiction, a prime example of dystopian literature, a feminist touchstone, and a recurring visitor to various banned-books lists.

That scare factor has stuck with me so well that I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale; it may have been only once. I can’t remember precisely when I first read it, but I know it was somewhere between 1987 and 1991, because I have a mental picture of where I first read it – in our small apartment in the Student Family Housing complex at Cornell University. I remember that my copy was a mass-market paperback, and that I saved it with intent to re-read – and which I may still have, but after several moves, I’m not sure exactly where it is.

I bought a new trade-paperback edition of the novel earlier this year. I’ve been meaning to revisit it for the last couple of years, as I’ve seen occasional group reads crop up in the book blogiverse, and current events have given me a new sense of urgency about it.

If you’re not sure why I’d have that reaction, here’s the publisher’s description and a summary from their Reader’s Guide:

“In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?

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 only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days 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….

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a totalitarian theocracy that has forced a certain class of fertile women to produce babies for elite barren couples. These “handmaids,” who are denied all rights and are severely beaten if they are uncooperative, are reduced to state property. Through the voice of Offred, a handmaid who mingles memories of her life before the revolution with her rebellious activities under the new regime, Atwood has created a terrifying future based on actual events.

Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.”

When Federal funding for Planned Parenthood can be abruptly eliminated and individual states can increasingly restrict access to safe and legal abortions, a woman’s right to control her own body is under attack. But for me, the larger context of Atwood’s tale – that it takes place in a theocracy – is the scarier thing. The Handmaid’s Tale was written during the ascendancy of the Moral Majority; while that organization no longer formally exists, the political influence of social and religious conservatives who would override the separation of church and state has only grown. A movement called Dominionism, which holds that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions and rule by non-Christians is a sort of sacrilege, is making inroads from the far right, and according to The Daily Beast, two Republican Presidential candidates have ties to it.

It is unfortunate that The Handmaid’s Tale may be even more timely and relevant now that it was 25 years ago, but that’s why I’m making time to read it again. Because I’ve found that it’s nice to have company in reading books like this, I suggested a group read of my own a few months ago. We’re kicking it off next week, and if you’d like to join us, there’s plenty of room – just give me your info on the sign-up form, like these readers did:

Jill (softdrink), Fizzy Thoughts (who jumped the gun and started reading early – and proclaims Margaret Atwood “a literary goddess”)
Kath, (insert suitably snappy title here…)
Vasilly, 1330v
Carrie K, Books and Movies
Margaret Barney, Just Margaret
Debi Swim, I Wonder About…
Alison Walker, So Many Books, So Little Time
Jeanne, Necromancy Never Pays (who has taught the novel and has promised provocative discussion questions)

As read-alongs go, this will be pretty loose, and you’ll have to get your own copy of the book. First-timers and re-readers are both welcome. Starting the week of August 21, read The Handmaid’s Tale at your own pace. I’ll have a “progress” post on August 31, and would like all the participants to post something related to their reading – non-spoilery discussion, response to a particular theme, thoughts on Atwood’s writing, etc. – on or around that date. We should all be done reading in time to post reviews/reactions and visit one another’s posts to discuss the book on September 12.

I realize this invitation is a little last-minute, but The Handmaid’s Tale is a true must-read – so, if you can fit it in, why not read it with me, now?

 EDITED TO ADD: If you mention in comments that you want to join the read, I’ll add you to the list myself. Thanks to everyone who’s already done so!

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