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The Handmaid's Tale

Handmaidstale  This book came out in 1986, and I just got around to reading it. It was hair-raising, depressing and kept me up nights. Even after I turned the light out.

Margaret Atwood sets up a bleak world. The president of the United States has been assassinated, Congress wiped out by machine gun. In place of the former government is a theocracy, and in the name of God women are completely subjugated. Our anonymous narrator lives in the Republic of Gilead and her sole function is to bear children. Most men and women in the country have become sterile - pollution, nuclear power plant melt downs and bad water are the culprits - so fertile women are essentially imprisoned by the powerful. Should the woman produce a child, it is promptly taken from her to be raised by others.

Our protagonist - known as Offred (she has no name of her own; her "Commander" is named Fred, and her name reflects his ownership) remembers freedom. She once had a husband, a child, a job and a bank account. It is early in the new republic. She vacillates between dreams of escape, placid resignation and contemplation of suicide. Spies are everywhere, but there is also an underground movement. Public hangings are daily events. Women are not allowed to read and write.

It's the language and the detail that make Gilead seem like a real and possible place, and our heroine a once-ordinary woman who finds herself in a terrifying new world. The end blew me away, even though we never know for sure poor Offred's fate.

This wasn't a book group selection, which is disappointing, because I would love to discuss this novel with others. Evidently they made it into a movie starring Natasha Richardson, which is bound to be a disappointment after the book. I'll probably Netflix it anyway.


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