So apparently real life isn’t depressing and dystopian enough, so I made June my month to read (and re-read) books that construct an all too believable future for women and their reproductive rights.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was my book club’s pick for June and though I don’t know if I would use the phrase “looking forward to it” to describe how I felt about re-reading this novel, I was definitely curious to revisit it. I read the book about a year after it came out in the late 80’s and I remember the strong feeling of claustrophobia and panic it stirred in me as I tried to imagine what I would do if I were in Offred’s situation. The first time I read it, I was a potential “Handmaid,” but this second time I was a “Martha,” and I don’t really know how I feel about that.
Having watched Season 1 of the Hulu series fairly recently, I was struck by how closely they hewed to the book and perhaps as a result, I had Elizabeth Moss’s face and voice in my head as I re-read the novel. One of the things that stood out to me was how confined we are to Offred’s point of view. We only know what she knows and/or what she suspects and so we are dependent on her to help us understand this new world, where the U.S. government has been taken over by the religious right. This new government has remade much of the U.S. into a Christian fundamentalist state, one where women are only valued for their ability to bear children. Of course, this takes place against the backdrop of a larger decline in birthrates and fertility and so women who are of childbearing years are forced to have sex with and bear the children of those in power. It’s a horrifying and seemingly unbelievable situation but Atwood has been quoted as saying that when writing the book, “one of my rules was that I would not put any events in the book that had not already happened . . . in history, nor any technology not already available” (xiv). That, of course, is the most terrifying thing of all.
Though springing from a similar impulse, the desire to construct a dystopian world that is only a few steps from our own, Leni Zumas’s novel, Red Clocks, does something a bit different—focusing on the impact of a “Personhood Amendment” on four women in a coastal Oregon town. This amendment has not only criminalized abortion and in-vitro fertilization but is leading to a religious right backed law that makes it illegal for anyone but a married couple (man and woman) to adopt or foster a child.
This all falls heavily onto one of the characters, Ro, a single high school history teacher, who wants to be a parent but finds the law and her own body working against her. Though artificial insemination is allowed, Ro has had treatment after treatment fail to result in a pregnancy and soon a law will take effect that will not allow her to adopt. This struggle is mirrored in her efforts to complete a book on a little known female polar explorer, Eivor Minervudottir, from the 19th century.
The novel moves back and forth between chapters from Ro’s perspective and those of three other women in town. Susan is the wife of one of Ro’s fellow teachers in the high school and while desperately unhappy in her marriage, she can’t quite bring herself to leave. Mattie, one of Ro’s best students, has just discovered that she is pregnant, a condition made all the more ironic because Mattie herself is adopted. Finally, Gin is a healer and recluse living on the outskirts of town and who both Ro and Mattie turn to in their problematic situations.
Though it takes a bit to get comfortable with the shifting viewpoints, the end result is surprisingly moving and much more optimistic than Atwood’s vision of the future. It’s a reminder of how women have always resisted and it’s a reminder I definitely needed.
#CBR11 Bingo – Listicle (Red Clocks)