Books are cheaper than heroin, but they DO add up....

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I'm clearly slacking in my old age.

The American Library Association keeps track of the most commonly challenged books and happily sorts them by decade.  Of the top 100 books that "concerned citizens" tried to restrict from library shelves in the 1990s, almost 30 of them found their way into my hands.  Of the top 100 books most commonly challenged in the 2000s, only 20 made my reading list.

(Using the same evidence, I could also claim that I'm becoming more conservative.  I'm a kind soul, though, and don't want to force any of you into a spit-take.  I'll stick to my slacker claim.)

It probably helps that many of the books from the '90s list I actually read in the '80s.  Those would be the Judy Blumes and Stephen Kings.  Those would be my middle school and high school years.  That's actually when I read 1984 and The Color Purple, too.  Apparently, I'm a rebel from WAY back in the day.

Heh. I crack myself up.

ANYWAY, in looking for a book to review that fulfills both the decision to review "scary" books in October and my desire to promote awareness of book censorship during Banned Book Week, I settled on The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The main character, Offred, is actually only one of many handmaidens.  She lives in a world where war, technology and chemicals have left everyone all but infertile.  The social and military leaders take drastic action to try and assure the continued existence of their people.  Offred was once actually a wife, a mother, and a gainfully-employed and fully-contributing citizen.  Now she's a handmaiden, living in the household of a Commander, assigned to menial tasks and assigned to help the Commander breed.  She remembers the time before when she had access to information, to books, and her own opinions.  First, she lost her possessions, then her family and her freedom.  Now, you see, handmaidens are forbidden from learning.  Offred's place in the Commander's house is dependent upon the fact that she once conceived and might again.  Her value is entirely in her womb.

The Handmaid's Tale isn't scary like the frequently banned Stephen King books I've read.  It has more in common with George Orwell's 1984.  It's frequently called a dystopian novel which is a smarty-pants way of saying that the society depicted in the story is the opposite of a utopia, the opposite of a perfect society. The online Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines a dystopia as a society characterized by human misery and oppression.  It's in this view of the world that the story becomes quickly, easily scary.  Nothing goes bump in the night, and there's no on-stage slaughter.  But the things this book makes you think?  The "what if?" and the "could they?" and the "could WE?"  Those are scary thoughts indeed.  It's also those questions and the oppression and the mandatory sex meant to eke out whatever viable reproduction is left in this society that lands this tale on the frequently challenged list.

It's not a comfortable read, and it's not fun.  It is, however, well-written and thought-provoking.  It's MEANT to make us uncomfortable, to make us question our actions, and our acceptance of the actions of others.  It shouldn't be banned.  It should be discussed.  The thoughts it raises shouldn't be avoided--just any social movement that could lead us to that dystopian reality.  That kind of reality is the very worst kind of bogey-man.

It was also made into a movie with an A-list cast.  The trailer is below.  It's doesn't shy away from the breeding efforts, so watch with caution.

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