Monday, February 15, 2010

Running Out of Time--Margaret Peterson Haddix

February 15, 2010

At the recommendation of one of my students, I picked up this young fiction novel after we read The Handmaid's Tale in class. The elements of a dystopian society are juxtaposed with modern society. In an elementary and somewhat simplistic way, the issues of unchecked power and abuse of modern science and technology are explored. Actually, I was reminded, as I was reading, of the movie "The Village," though I expect the intended audience is not yet old enough to watch that film.

In the novel, Jessie is a young girl growing up in 1840, a simpler time of hard work and rustic, rugged values. However, in her tiny little town of Clifton, a powerful outbreak of diptheria threatens the lives of many of the children of the village. With great trepidation, her mother, the one who is called to tend to the sick and dying, reveals an almost unbelievable secret. The year is NOT, as Jessie believes, 1840. It is actually 1996, and Jessie and all of her neighbors are living in an elaborate frontier village that the world outside views through hidden cameras as a tourist attraction. Several years past, the adults banded together to escape the growing danger and instability of the outside world and with the help of a few powerful men on the outside, set up a virtually self-sustaining and isolated society. They had agreed for the sake of authenticity to raise the children of the villiage to believe they were from that earlier time.

The only real modern advances would be medical--medicine would be sent in secretly to the village on a regular basis in order to maintain the health of the inhabitants. Within the past few months however, just prior to the diptheria outbreak, the medicine stopped being delivered, with no explanation. Jessie's mom sends her on a dangerous mission out in the real world--a world completely unfamiliar to her, to seek help and to find out why this has happened. The village is heavily guarded so that no one can either exit or enter, but Jessie must find a way to escape--lives are at stake.

As Jessie makes her way to 1996, readers follow her journey not only to find help, but to find answers as well. How did the village come to be? Why? Whose interests are being served? Why has the medicine stopped coming? Why is the outside of the village so heavily guarded? We as readers are not disappointed as Jessie explores all of these questions. The author's writing style is at times a bit choppy and occasionally heavy-handed, but I was impressed at the way in which she was able to address some fairly complex issues in a novel geared at a young audience. Kids who enjoy this novel might find their way a few years down the road to an appreciation of 1984, Brave New World, The Road, and yes, The Handmaid's Tale.


Friday, February 12, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale--Margaret Atwood

When I first read The Handmaid's Tale some 25 years ago, it had a profound effect on me. All these years later, I find that the basic message still holds true.

The novel is set in the not very distant future. The damage we have done to the environment has taken its toll on fertility rates, as well as the water and food supplies. Feminist mores of society have also become more extreme, adding to the drop in childbirth rates. An extremist group, feeling like a move away from traditionalist values is to blame for the ever-alarming direction society is moving in, enacts a coup and in one fell swoop violently guns down the members of Congress in session. Swift and immediate repercussions are the freezing of all bank accounts by women and halting of international travel. (Extreme reliance on technology in the society make this possible--everything, including money, is all automated.) The Constitution is suspended in order to 'enact emergency measures to stablize society.' In the blink of an eye, all systems are in place for a reversion to a completely patriarchal and near-dictatorial system of government.

In this new system, there is a distinct hierarchy designed to maintain patriarchal rule while simultaneously building back up the population. Those who are still fertile but are not considered worthy to be wives of the elite become Handmaids, vessels for the sole purpose of reproduction. Hearkening back to the Old Testament, the Handmaids' bodies are 'borrowed' for surrogacy by Commanders and their wives who are unable to have children. They are reduced to that basic biological function. Once they have successfully managed to produce a child, that child is given to the Commander and his wife to raise as their own.

Offred, the main character is one of these Handmaids. She is a former feminist, daughter of a feminist, and is now in service under her Commander. The society is ruled through such fear and intimidation that she dares not rebel, though her position is what one would consider degrading and subservient. The unexpected happens, though, when her Commander summons her for a clandestine meeting at night behind closed doors. What they do there Scrabble. The written word has been denied women in this society, as has free conversation. It turns out, this is what the Commander most misses about the old society--the ability to converse, engage in word play, enjoy verbal banter. He misses the emotional and intellectual connection that has been eradicated in this highly regulated, compartmentalized society. She learns, in her undercover meetings with the fairly high ranking Commander, the impetus for the coup, what they hoped to accomplish, what they still hope to attain in this newly restructured society.

Through the Commander, Atwood warns of extremism: extreme political views, extreme social views, extreme religious views, and extreme reliance on technology--all elements we battle in our own contemporary world. When one group superimposes its own singular viewpoint on others, everyone in society loses. Even those whose will is powerfully enforced will find that something is lost. The Commander says, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." He says this to justify the sacrifices made by some, presumably for the greater good. What he doesn't realize, though, is that he, too, has sacrificed something, and that what they thought was the greater good might not have been so after all.

A caveat: if you decide to pick up this book (and I think you should), be sure to read the Historical Notes at the end. I have recommended this book to friends and students many times and have realized that the notes at the end can be misleading. It looks like an addendum--perhaps Atwood's research notes. Many bypass this section as they might a preface or a forward. However, in this case, it is, in fact, part of the novel itself. If you don't read it, you haven't actually read the end of the book, and it does make a difference. Offred says in the novel, "Context is all," and here the Historical Notes, closing chapter in the book, give a new context that has bearing on the perspective of the rest of the novel.