Book Review: The Glass Arrow, Kristen Simmons (2015)

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Meet The Handmaid’s Tale’s Younger YA Cousin

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape – including allusions to rape, at least one rape attempt, medical rape, and general rape culture – human trafficking, slavery, and violence.)

My ma taught me one thing from the beginning: My body is mine. My own. No one else’s. Just because someone thinks they have rights to it, doesn’t make it true. I thought I understood that before, but here, in this place, it’s become more clear than ever how right she was. My flesh and blood – it’s the only thing I own, and I’ll defend it until I can’t fight anymore.

Behind us are two or three dozen country people from the outlying towns. With them are cages of chicken and goats, sheep, even cattle. That’s where we fit on market day. Between the executions and the livestock sales.

Fifteen-year-old Aiyana (Aya to her family; Clover to her captors) is a rarity – a free woman living in the forests of Isor. Along with her mostly-adopted family – her cousin Salma; fellow refugee Metea; and Metea’s children, Bian, Tam, and Nina – Aya hunts and gathers the food she needs, prays to Mother Hawk for guidance, and just generally goes about her business, all while evading detection by the feared Trackers.

In the nearby city of Glasscaster, women are items to be bought and sold. Property. Slaves. Young women may be purchased for sex (read: rape) or for breeding, only to be foisted off on pimps in the Black Lanes after they’re all “used up.” Along with “First Rounders” (read: virgins), “wild girls” are among the most valuable of them all – not only do Magnates take especial pleasure in breaking these formerly free women down, but their time outside of the city and its attendant pollution has blessed them with superior fertility. Lucky them.

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the BBC Radio Dramatization (2000)

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

This is part nine in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

The Handmaid's Tale (BBC Radio 4, 2000, 2)

The dramatization of The Handmaid’s Tale produced and aired by BBC Radio 4 in 2000 is more than a direct reading of the novel. Rather, it’s a full-cast performance, complete with sound effects, that puts the film version to shame.

In direct contrast to Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film effort, the producers of the 2000 BBC 4 radio dramatization of The Handmaid’s Tale succeed in creating a moving reenactment of the novel – without sacrificing any of Margaret Atwood’s vision. Granted, the BBC audio recording is a bit lengthier than the film; it spans three CDs, totaling no more than 4.5 hours (the film clocks in at 109 minutes), allowing extra time for Kate’s narration to unfold. Still, even the producers of the BBC dramatization had to cut several prominent sequences in order to condense the story. Unlike Schlöndorff and company, they chose wisely, and also reworked other aspects of the dramatization to compensate for the lost pieces of the novel.

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the 1990 Film Adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff

Friday, September 19th, 2008

This is part eight in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

The Handmaid's Tale (Movie - 1990)

If you’ve never read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1990 film adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff might seem an interesting enough movie. Set in a future in which Christian fundamentalists have overthrown the government, the film paints a terrifying picture of an American theocracy. Women, homosexuals, religious minorities, people of color, political dissidents – all suffer under the oppressive thumb of The Republic of Gilead.

Those familiar with the 1985 novel will see that much of the basic story remains the same in Schlöndorff’s on-screen adaptation. The former United States is in the midst of a Civil War; The Republic of Gilead holds much of the East Coast, while dissenting religious and secular groups wage war to the South and West. Within the Republic’s borders, a strict social structure is enforced. Men are ranked according to prestige and merit (Commanders, Eyes, Angels, Guardians, and businessmen and professionals), while women are grouped according to social function, which is primarily determined by their reproductive health and racial makeup (Aunts, Wives and Daughters, Econowives, Handmaids, Marthas, and Unwomen). While no Gileadean citizen is truly free, it is the females who bear the brunt of Gilead’s religious tyranny.

It is in this context that we meet Kate (Offred), a Handmaid who has been assigned to Commander Fred (“Of Fred”) and his Wife, Serena Joy. The Handmaid’s Tale is Kate’s tale, told in her very own voice, through a disjointed series of flashbacks and present-day narrations. Through Kate’s eyes, we reflect upon “the days before”; we learn how the Sons of Jacob were able to destabilize and eventually topple the American government and institute their own patriarchal theocracy; and we get a glimpse of what daily life in the Republic is like.

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Dear Dystopian Deniers

Monday, September 8th, 2008

This is part seven in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Dear Dystopian Deniers

The Handmaid's Tale (Book - 1985)

Perhaps the most widespread criticism I’ve seen of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is improbable, unrealistic, a stretch of the imagination.

To wit:

Not Realistic Enough to be Scary; [A]lthough there were a great deal of things about this book that touched me and made me think, I found it simply unbelievable that anyone, male or female, would have tolerated this social system for very long.

Handmaid Tale…; Atwood made this society where it is supposed to be the future, yet women are still being repressed by male dominated society. Theocracy should have been eliminated by this point in time.

Trite and unrealistic.; This book in no way convinced me that American society would end up in the bizarre ‘1984’-like ripoff presented here. To even suggest this as the logical future is completely shortsighted and ignores all advances women have made towards equality in the past hundred years or so.

…and my personal favorite, from “a female conservative”:

Intriguing, but Unlikely; Several of the other reviewers argue that Atwood’s vision is not at all farfetched because of the state of women in Islamic countries. Exactly! I had the same thought in the back of my head the whole time I was reading this book. It is so-called Islamic countries in the Middle East and not Western nations where women are limited to lives as wives and mothers and where the sanctity of the individual is not respected. Had Atwood set her novel in present-day Iran or Iraq, it would ring true in a way that setting it in near-future-day America does not. We have a centuries-old tradition of respecting individual rights in America.

Shorter female conservative: It’s the darkies who are bigots, silly!

Or: What slavery?

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists

Friday, August 29th, 2008

This is part six in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 07)

This blamer was just a wee little babycake when Margaret Atwood was penning The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet twenty-plus years later, the characters and political climate still ring true. Has our society progressed so little?

Serena Joy, who receives relatively little attention in The Handmaid’s Tale, is perhaps the most engrossing character aside from Kate. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Beverly LaHaye, Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly (she of “it is legally, morally, and technically impossible for husbands to rape their wives, because women have consented to a lifetime of sex-on-demand through marriage” fame) and the like. In “the days before”, Serena Joy was an evangelical preacher on the teevee. The type of woman who made a living by scolding other women for working outside the home. In other words, a hypocrite:

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

This is part five in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post. (An especially timely post, considering last night’s religious interrogation of “church chat” between Barack Obama, John McCain and Rick Warren.)

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 04)

Just as the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, so too does a theocracy hurt believers and non-believers alike.

Although Atwood never identifies Gilead’s sect, we do know that it’s a Christian theocracy. We can eliminate Catholics, Quakers and Baptists, for Gilead forces young Catholic nuns to either renounce their religion and become Handmaids, or else face exile to The Colonies; fights against the Quakers, many of which are helping Gilead’s women escape via the Underground Femaleroad; and is engaged in open warfare with the Baptists. Given the state of current American religion and politics, Southern Baptist seems the best bet, however, all we can say about Gilead’s religion is that it is a fundamentalist Christian sect that is vehemently opposed by most of the other American religious sects – Christian or otherwise.

In fact, Gilead considers every religious sect other than its own the enemy, and demands that their adherents submit and convert – or die. The only believers which were spared during the Civil War were practicing Jews, who could either convert or immigrate to Israel. (Not as lucky a fate as it sounds; according to our future scientists, Gilead “privatiz[ed ] the Jewish repatriation scheme, with the result that more than one boatload of Jews was simply dumped into the Atlantic.” KBR, anyone?)

Gilead’s fundamentalist reading of the Bible, coupled with their brute force and religious zealotry, proved harmful to believers and non-believers alike, who were forced to submit to Gilead’s dogma or die. Nor did being “Christian enough” placate the Sons of Jacob – all citizens must follow Gilead’s religiously derived laws, to the letter, or face draconian punishments. A woman caught reading, for example, might lose a hand. No matter whether that woman agrees with Gilead and views “reading while female” a Biblical sin; she must abide by her government’s reading of holy doctrine either way.

In a theocracy, there’s no guarantee that the government will share your interpretation of the Bible. Better still to enshrine strong civil liberties protections in the Constitution, along with a healthy respect for the separation of church and state – that way, no one can force their religious beliefs on others, or have their own religious beliefs taken from them.

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too

Friday, August 8th, 2008

This is part four in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 03)

While the women of Gilead bear the greatest burden of living in a patriarchy built on a misogynistic religion – after all, they are property – most of Gileadean men don’t fare well, either. The patriarchy hurts men, too.

Like women, men are ranked according to Gilead’s rigid social structure: Commanders, Eyes, Angels, Guardians, common working men, and dissidents. Those who helped form Gilead, the original loyalists and its founding fathers, sit at the top of the social ladder. Next come the newly converted True Believers ™, and then down the line until you have the political dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities, and those who sinned in “the days before”. Some of the “troublemakers” are executed, while others may be sent to work in The Colonies alongside the Unwomen. Such an intractable hierarchy only benefits those few men lucky enough to sit atop the pyramid.

(Interestingly, Gilead does not have a corresponding term for men; there are no “Unmen”. Perhaps this can be attributed to Gilead’s cult of mother worship in a time of rampant infertility? Here, all women are expected to aspire to motherhood as their greatest, indeed their only goal. So the worst thing you can call a woman is not-a-woman, an Unwoman. What does this say about the value of men in Gilead?)

All men are expected to obey their superiors unquestioningly. Though they have greater access to knowledge than the women, their freedom is severely limited. The government controls the media: the television only broadcasts religious programming and propaganda-disguised-as-news. Printed material must also submit to government regulations. Subversive materials from “the days before” – books, magazines, CDs, VHS tapes, etc. – is banned by the government. Citizens were instructed to destroy these sinful possessions, and to ensure complicity, Gilead conducted house-to-house raids in which all “contraband” was confiscated and destroyed. Ditto for other insufficiently pious items such as unauthorized clothing, blasphemous knickknacks and any items with written words that the womenfolk might read on accident.

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

This is part three in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 05)

In addition to being a misogynistic society, Gilead is also a racist and homophobic society. Unlike misogyny, however, The Handmaid’s Tale is notable for what it does not say about race and homosexuality.

In her narration, Kate very rarely mentions race. When describing people, skin color is almost never explicitly referenced. Through subtle clues, we can discern that many of the main characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are white: Kate describes her brown hair, the Commander’s silver hair, Serena Joy’s blond hair, Nick’s angular French facial features, Ofglen’s pink, plump face, Janine’s pink nose. Nameless Guardians have peach-colored mustaches and pale faces. Gilead is overwhelmingly white – except for its laborers. Rita and Cora, Commander Fred’s Marthas, are women of color. We know this of Rita because Kate describes her “brown arm”, but can only assume this of Cora.

Kate describes Marthas as women whose previous work in the domestic sphere has instilled in them a compliant, subservient nature. Wiki defines Marthas as “infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude.” (I’m paraphrasing Kate’s description, as I was unable to locate the exact quote.) While there’s some speculation as to whether Marthas are African Americans – thus conjuring America’s history of slavery – it’s unclear whether all the Marthas share the same race and ethnicity, or if any women of color who are appropriately subservient and compliant are given the option of working as Marthas as opposed to dying in The Colonies. It is my impression that Rita and Cora are Latinas, based on Rita’s “brown arms” and their first names. Additionally, while I was unable to locate the demographics of domestic workers in the U.S., Diana Vellos claims that “Latinas today constitute the largest category of women entering the domestic labor force in the United States. Many of these women are undocumented workers.”

Whatever their heritage, it seems as though Marthas are the only people of color living in Gilead. Most likely, any other non-white Americans were killed or sent to The Colonies as manual laborers.

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

Friday, July 25th, 2008

This is part two in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 06)

By far, the most pervasive theme in The Handmaid’s tale is misogyny and the oppression of women; in fact, female oppression The Republic of Gilead is so ubiquitous so as to suggest that the nation was founded for the sole purpose of reinstating a true theocratic patriarchy. Every facet of society works in concert to control Giliadean women; their subjugation is total.

Women are segregated into groups based on their social functions, as are men. However, unlike the men, women have no chance for upward mobility, only down. A man, for example, may move up in rank from a Guardian to an Angel. There is no such opportunity for women. Wives (and Econowives) may only become Widows; Handmaids, Marthas and Jezebels may be cast off as Unwomen should they fail to fulfill their roles. And Unwomen become laborers or are sent to die a gruesome death in the polluted Colonies. To add insult to injury, a woman’s status is largely determined by her birth, loyalty and reproductive function. In contrast, Gilead does not so much as acknowledge that a man’s reproductive function may be lacking, theoretically or in practice.

Women, with the exception of the Aunts, are not allowed to read or write. Women do not have access to books of any sort, including the Bible. Every household has a Bible, of course, but this is kept under lock and key. Nor do females have writing implements – neither pens nor paper – at their disposal. The no-reading edict is so strictly enforced that the neighborhood markets advertise their wares with graphic signs as opposed to written store names: Lilies of the Field, which sells habits, sports a golden lily on the sign out front; Milk and Honey has “three eggs, a bee, a cow”; and All Flesh “is marked by a large wooden pork chop hanging from two chains.” When the Handmaids are sent out on errands, they are given small cards (similar to tokens) with which to purchase groceries and other necessities. These, too, are decorated with pictures.

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The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Intro & Plot Summary

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Introduction

The Handmaid's Tale (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

While “The Handmaid’s Tale(s)” started out as a simple review, it turns out that I’m so enamored of the book that it’s impossible to boil a discussion down to 3,000 words or less. Given the length of the essay, I decided to break it down into a series of posts; I’ll upload one every day or two until they’re all online.

Hopefully at least one of my observations is fresh, yet so much has been written on The Handmaid’s Tale that many of my thoughts have most likely been voiced previously, probably by more adept literary critics than myself. However, the only resource related specifically to The Handmaid’s Tale I consulted while writing the essay is Wikipedia, and only to confirm the color of the Econowives’ dresses. Hence, no reference list. (But there are links to additional resources where appropriate.)

Without further ado, Part One in a nine-part series: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Plot Summary.

(A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.)

Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

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This is “pro-life.”

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet? There’s no telling. They could tell once, with machines, but that is now outlawed. What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is it must be carried to term.

From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Which, unbelievably, this curmudgeonly feminist is only just now getting around to reading.