“The Testaments “
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan Talese/Doubleday
Price: $28.95 (Hardcover)
While no one would claim Margret Atwood as an Alabama novelist, she did in fact write the last chapters of “The Handmaid’s Tale” here while a visiting writer in Tuscaloosa in the spring of 1985.
That novel has been a prize-winner, much honored, translated and adapted to film, opera and television.
“The Testaments,” a sequel and a prequel both, has now been published, one could honestly say, due to popular demand.
Readers will remember that the Republic of Gilead, comprised mostly of New England and some mid-Atlantic states, was established after a violent coup in which the president and most of the Congress—understood to be hopelessly corrupt and useless—were killed and is still in a simmering state of war with much of what used to be the U.S., including California and the Republic of Texas.
Gilead is a harsh, totalitarian regime, hypocritically masquerading as a theocracy. The religion is a distortion of Christian principles, wrenched out of context. The social castes are rigid. Men are Commanders, Eyes (domestic CIA types), Econohusbands. Women are Aunts, Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives. Servants obey their masters. All dress according to caste. Women are utterly subordinate, not allowed to read, write, vote or handle money. Mostly, the upper-caste women do embroidery and flower arranging.
Handmaids are a group of especially oppressed women, fertile, in a toxic and, due mainly to radioactivity, mostly barren society, forced into unwanted sex and reproduction for the Commanders.
In this new novel, there is resistance, and attempts to escape, often through the newest version of the Underground Railroad, The Underground Female Road, up through Maine and Vermont, aided by Quakers, heroes who if caught are hanged.
Gilead propaganda says Canada is “Sodom.” Everyone laughs at this idea, Canada being famously “boring and ordinary,” but “Pearl Girls” trained by the Aunts, go on “mission trips” to Canada to persuade escapees to return.
Several young women survivors write their Testaments, tell their stories of childhood, home life, disillusionment, and attempted escape. This strand of the novel is sequel.
Aunt Lydia’s secret memoir is prequel.
From the very start of the takeover, the Commanders knew that they would need a few powerful, true believer women to control the female population. They chose smart, educated, female lawyers and judges, “middle aged professionals in suits and good haircuts,” then tortured, humiliated and brainwashed these women into becoming the Aunts, the alpha females. They, like Commanders, have the title of “Founders.”
New Aunts in training get to choose a name from an assortment of names of products “women liked once and would be reassured by,” even though the meanings have been lost to time, such names as “Maybelline” or “Ivory” or “Victoria.”
Aunt Lydia’s memoir tells us of Day One, when women learned their bank accounts were seized and they were to be powerless from then on.
Open Resistance was futile.
Cunning was called for.
Aging now, over the course of years Aunt Lydia has written a secret diary, telling of her rise to the top, accumulating mountains of incriminating evidence against powerful men. That knowledge—of their child abuse, thievery, even murder (older husbands occasionally murder their wives in order to get new young wives) gave her power, but in so doing she herself had to perform and authorize much cruelty, torture and murder, all while working underground. Some readers will remember Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” in which the hero pretends to be a loyal Nazi. Are we finally the sum of our actions, whatever the motives? Ultimately, do the ends justify the means?
Aunt Lydia is herself aware of ambiguities, uncertainties.
She is so revered there is a statue of her on the grounds of Ardua Hall, larger than life size.
She writes: “Clutching my left hand is a girl of seven or eight, gazing up at me with trusting eyes. My right hand rests on the head of a woman crouched at my side, her hair veiled, her eyes upturned in an expression that could be read as either craven or grateful—one of our Handmaids—and behind me is one of my Pearl Girls, ready to set out on her missionary work. Hanging from a belt around my waist is my Taser.”
There can be no doubt Atwood is subtly alluding to the very controversial statue of the “Founder” (Booker T. Washington) in Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.”
That very real statue stands on the grounds of Tuskegee and in the novel is described by the skeptical narrator: “I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted or lowered more firmly into place, whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”
Although much of Atwood’s work is pretty grim, she can also be allusive and wryly amusing, which one may or may not spot. The coffee shop in Ardua Hall is the Schlafly Café. The library is the Hildegard library.
Aunt Lydia, deep in a plot against the regime and Commander Judd in particular says “Good, be thou my evil” a reverse of Satan’s utterance in Book IV of “Paradise Lost,” “Evil, be thou my good.”
“The Testaments” has its strengths and Atwood fans will read it gratefully.
I don’t think it can be read successfully, however, without reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” first. And, however sensational the horrors, as when, in the “Particicution,” dozens of angry Handmaids tear a condemned man to death with their teeth and bare hands, nothing matches the force of first learning exactly what a Handmaid was.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.