Friday, February 28, 2014

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I recently discovered that my local library has audiobook downloads you can "check out" online and I could not wait to browse the list of available titles. How fantastic is it that you can have a book read to you within a few minutes - and some are even available on you phone! How awesome is that?! I spent a few hours going through the whole library worth and I made a "wishlist" of titles I would like to read. Many of my wanted titles were currently checked out, but when I saw this one I quickly snatched it before anyone else did.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was one of the World Book Night titles for 2013 and has interested me ever since. The book takes place in a dystopian future where the United States is no more and the area has been taken over by a fundamentalist Christian religious group and called Gilead. In Gilead, women are controlled: they cannot hold property, converse or consort with men they are not married to, or even read and write. In the years before Gilead was established, pregnancy became rare. The narrator tells you it is because of chemicals we expose ourselves too and the situation becomes so precarious that a new faction of society is formed: the handmaids. Handmaids act as surrogates, each one being assigned to a husband and wife who have been childless. The handmaids are all "viable" women who had the choice to either live this life or be sent to "the colonies", which is basically just a nuclear fall out site where they would be exposed to severe radiation and die a horrible death. The handmaids are given 3 chances to bare acceptable offspring for the family they are assigned to - there is only a 1 in 4 chance that the baby will be "normal" and not deformed from the chemicals and radiation - the other 75% of them are called "unbabies" and are killed.

It's hard to wrap up the complicated society of this book in just a short review here, but I look at it as a combination of most religious and political groups that are considered backward and frightening to modern Americans. It would be like combining the most extreme laws of Amish, Shariah, Nazi and Presbyterian fundamentalism. Everything is controlled by men who impose incredibly restrictive laws that are for the "protection" of their women. The laws are really used to keep their people at bay, too afraid to speak up and powerless to fight the controlling body.

The narrator has been forced into the life she leads. Her child was taken away from her before "the war", and now she has been through a "women's center" where she is basically brainwashed into leading this life. She lives how she is expected but never completely accepts or believes in what she is doing, eventually leading to her breaking a few rules just to mix things up in her miserable life.

I feel like I'm kind of rambling, so I'll just get to the heart of what I thought. This books was a great warning of what can happen in any society controlled by one religion. There is no freedom except for those who are high enough up in the government that they are "above" the common man and therefor feel that it is ok for them to go outside the law but not others. The women are forced into strict rituals that are said to be for their own good, when in reality it is all so they can be kept down and ignorant of the bigger picture. We may all wish that our own religion played a bigger part in the laws of our country, whatever religion that may be, but this book really outlines how slippery that slope is. No matter what the intentions are of any religion, man is a greedy and imperfect animal; and when we allow a governing body to limit our freedoms for what they claim is "our own good", we are allowing another imperfect being to control us and use us as pawns for their own benefit.

I really enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale. It was not only incredibly thought provoking, but the story was enjoyable in and of itself. The book was very well written and the characters all very lifelike. You can't help but feel for all of the women involved, no matter what their social status they all have their own hardships in this strange life. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. It's certainly one to read when you want to reexamine your stance on government and religion.

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