World Book Night: A Handmaid's Tale

I was thrilled to be selected to distribute free books this year for World Book Night, which will take place next week on April 23. And I was even more excited when I discovered that I would be able to give away one of my favorites: The Handmaid's Tale.
I first read Margaret Atwood's incredible novel in college. I remember thinking that it was beautifully written and disturbing...and that nothing like it could ever happen in reality.
Reading it again today, decades later, the book is chillingly familiar, with themes that resonate around our current culture and politics. In fact, The Handmaid's Tale almost feels too close for comfort when viewed against our society's debates about religion and its role in politics.
In the book's fictional realm of Gilead, a military coup has been staged by a right-wing, ultra-religious, homophobic cult that sees itself as the solution to social ills and "degradation." The coup starts with a terrorist attack, falsely blamed on Islamic militants. The attack kills the president and many members of Congress, so the Sons of Jacob take over, suspending the constitution and setting new religious and social rules as a way of "restoring order." The sexes are segregated, as are all non-white races, any child with a birth defect is made to "disappear," and homosexuality is punishable by death.
Part of that new theocracy, and the heart of the novel, involves removing the rights of all women and creating an ultra-conservative social agenda. Women are now forbidden to read, to hold jobs outside of the home, to vote, or to be in public view at all. And, as part of a plan to reverse the declining birth rate, some women who have proven to be fertile must now serve as concubines to high-ranking officials to help continue the line of "right thinking" people.
Offred is one of these "handmaids," assigned to The Commander to produce an heir for him and his wife, who is assumed to be (and is blamed for) being sterile. Offred is seen only to be a tool and nothing more; even her name is a derivation of The Commander's (of-Fred). Her spirit has been crushed by the subjugation of the totalitarian Sons of Jacob. Although Offred had children in her pre-revolution life, she doesn't appear to be able to become pregnant with The Commander.
With all of their livelihoods depending on a child, The Commander's wife insists that Offred have a relationship with Nick, the family chauffeur. With Nick, Offred learns that there is a resistance movement called Mayday, and that there could be hope for change in her world. The book ends uncertainly, as life often does, but an epilogue suggests a more positive future for Gilead.
I recently asked a few college-age young women if they had read The Handmaid's Tale, and was quite surprised that it no long appears on university required-reading lists. In fact, in an ironic twist that would be funny if it wasn't so frightening, Atwood's novel is often found on lists of banned books. Given that its themes are about censorship and controlling governments, that's a stunning statement.
So look for me on April 23 – I'll give you a free copy of this mind-altering and "subversive" text. Maybe it should be renamed The Cautionary's Tale.


  1. I know how you feel. I am giving away Fahrenheit 451 where all books have been digitized, belong to the government, and hard copies are illegal. Of course the books, history, and Bible stories have been changed and re-fed to the people via the huge TV walls in the homes. Sound familiar?

    1. Ah - that was my second-choice book! And another one that is far too close to home in today's world.