Good piece by Margaret Atwood about… what everything’s about, these days.

Any child growing up in Canada in the 1940s, at a time before there were vaccines for a horde of deadly diseases, was familiar with quarantine signs. They were yellow and they appeared on the front doors of houses. They said things such as DIPHTHERIA and SCARLET FEVER and WHOOPING COUGH. Milkmen – there were still milkmen in those years, sometimes with horse-drawn wagons – and bread men, ditto, and even icemen, and certainly postmen (and yes, they were all men), had to leave things on the front doorsteps. We kids would stand outside in the snow – for me, it was always winter in cities, as the rest of the time my family was up in the woods – gazing at the mysterious signs and wondering what gruesome things were going on inside the houses. Children were especially susceptible to these diseases, especially diptheria – I had four little cousins who died of it – so once in a while a classmate would disappear, sometimes to return, sometimes not.


The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Books 2019, 15)

It’s to my shame that I hadn’t read this classic of modern literature before now. And it turns out, now that I have, that it’s really good. Surprise, surprise. I don’t really care for dystopias, as I’ve said before. Interesting that the book I linked to there had just won the Clarke, and the one we’re discussing was the inaugural winner of that award.

For the first few chapters I was distracted by wondering how this situation, this state, could have come to be. Strangely what I found difficult to cope with was not the restrictions, the rolling back of rights — they are horrific, but I could and can easily imagine an America (or, hell, maybe even a Britain) that could enact those laws.

No, what I found hardest to believe in was the dress codes. The way not just the Handmaids, but the marthas (domestic servants), econowives (lower-class, probably infertile women, assigned to lower-class men) and even Wives (the wives of the ruling-class men) all dress in the standard costume of their class.

Somehow I feel — or at least felt — that it would be harder to get everyone to dress the same way than to obey laws that restrict more important freedoms.

As the chapters went on, those concerns evaporated. The telling of the backstory through Offred’s reminiscences outlines a convincing route from 80s America to Gilead. Though a lot more could be told: it is only an outline. Still, it’s enough.

These days, with actual nazis poisoning our political discourse, and attempts to roll back reproductive rights even in France, it sometimes feels — as Atwood no doubt intended — that Gilead is not so much a fable as a warning.


Margaret Atwood's Uncanny Ancestor

This is a horrific quote from The New Yorker‘s interview with Margaret Atwood:

Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. ‘The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,’ Atwood said recently. ‘But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.’ Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary.

But I can’t help thinking, if there’s anything to the story, wouldn’t they have taken her survival as further evidence of her witchy nature, and made sure they killed her next time? As it is, it sounds like she lived on.