We have been vacationing at my parents’ place in the mountains and I have been busy rescuing children stranded in trees and marveling at the number of reptiles and amphibians my boys can catch in one day. I have also been busily lying around reading a book I never thought I would admit to having read, let alone recommend. I once heard someone say that sometimes when reading a book, it is as if a hand reaches out from the pages and takes yours, or something of the sort. (It was in a movie preview so I didn’t have much time to absorb the quote.) Perhaps this idea is a bit of cliché but only because we have all had the experience.
In reading Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, I found a hand extended from an unexpected quarter. As I have said before, I’m no feminist, so my expectations for enjoyment were relatively low. But this hand that clasped mine sometimes felt like the hand of friendship, warm and soft with humor and tenderness. Atwood tells the story of Gilead, a nation whose society is an oppressive hybrid of legalism and classism that would make the Pharisees look like slackers. This place is the head-on collision of Islamic Fundamentalism and the caste system of India with The Stepford Wives riding shotgun. Despite the heavy and often grotesque subject matter, Atwood flavors her writing with just enough wit to keep you from throwing yourself under a bus halfway through the book. Her ironic humor functions like salt in chocolate—you taste the despair more distinctly when compared with the lighter moments. At other times, rather than a friendly handshake, I felt like I was receiving a hearty slap in the face. All the atrocities committed by the Nation of Gilead are justified in religious terms, and the warping of the Scripture and truth into such monstrous falsehood is unsettling to say the least. I feared a “See all the horrible things people do in the name of Christianity” moment. But as I continued to read, I found a fairly balance approach. Yes, all the bad guys (and gals) use a lot of mumbo jumbo Christianese, but the main character of the book, Offred, seems to see this for what it is—mumbo jumbo. She also sees the weakness of reasoning which attempts to justify a society without restraints. Through the use of outrageous exaggeration, Atwood depicts both sides more clearly rather than employing one-sided stereotypes of the popular Christian fiction variety. Frankly, I find it more offensive when Christians present a white-washed, over-simplified version of the straight and narrow than when non-Christians present all Christians as hypocritical morons looking to oppress the infidels. We, at least, should know better.
This is definitely not a book for the faint at heart. It is crude, graphic, and highly disturbing. But considering the times we are living in, perhaps it is no more so than what you see surfing the net or watching the nightly news. Whatever your perspective, The Handmaid’s Tale will give you plenty to chew on as it has me. Something to think about as I take another picture of the boys’ creepy-crawlies or ascend the heights to liberate a terrified Maggie. While I don’t see myself walking hand-in-hand with Margaret Atwood down a sunny country lane (after all, Jane Austen is my usual partner in such walks, and she might get jealous), I certainly wouldn’t mind sharing a cup of coffee with her and hearing more of what she has to say. I will promise not to be too defensive and not to use any Christianese. Maybe I will even bring Jane along, if Atwood promises not to use the “F” word too much or slap me in the face again.