“Message in the Closet”

pasted image 0Books on Tap read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood at  Champion Brewery on November 2. The book, originally published in 1985, is being read again both because of the current political climate and the Hulu television adaptation (many JMRL book clubs have read the book this year). The novel is based on the taped diary of Offred, a women living in the Republic of Gilead (one the United States), a monotheocracy where women are only valued for their reproductive potential. It is #37 on ALA’s frequently challenged list and #34 in PBS’ The Great American Read.

Book club members liked Atwood’s writing style, although the story itself was creepy. Those of us who have seen the movie or tv adaptations said their strong visual styling replaced their own mental images. We also thought that they story was believable; her Gilead was recognizably America. Why she never explains how the theocracy gains total power, Atwood has said repeatedly that none of the restrictions and oppressions in the book are invented. Everything that happens in Gilead happened on earth prior to 1986. The near-future setting allowed us to wonder what we would do in similar circumstances, and is clearly resonating with others today, like those have been dressing as handmaids at recent protests. While Atwood was writing about fundamentalism, evangelicals and environmental disasters specific to the mid 1980s, history repeats and keeps this story current.

Offred serves as a handmaid, a reproductive surrogate, for the Commander and his wife Serena Joy. While Offred had been an educated, caring woman before the establishment of Gilead, her current isolation dampens her personality. She once had friends, a child and a partner. Now, she only speaks with another handmaid on her weekly shopping trips and secretly both plays Scrabble with the Commander and meets with his chauffeur, Nick.

The isolation works to tamp down a small resistance movement. Communication is difficult. Ofglen, another handmaid, has to hide a message to Offred in a closet. The murdered bodies of resistors are displayed in public. Offred at first thought her husband could protect her from Gilead’s restrictions and then laid low in hopes of protecting her daughter. She seemed resigned at the hanging she witnesses, possibly due to Stockholm syndrome.

Rationalization was possible because Gilead’s policies didn’t touch anyone Offred knew at first. Then, women policed each other, saving themselves but reinforcing the patriarchy. While people must have believed in the religion at some point, it is now used as a weapon. Those not practicing face peer pressure and family alienation. The only way to integrate in the culture is to participate in the religion.

The epilogue revealed that the bulk of the story is taken from an incomplete set of of tapes of Offred’s oral history. It’s hard to judge if Offred is an unreliable narrator or if missing parts of the story are captured on the yet-to-be discovered tapes. Offred, whose true name is never known, is further sidelined from her own story by the male academics presenting a paper on her edited tapes. They care so little about her humanity that the reader is left wondering: did she escape?

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author
About the book
Hulu series
1990 Movie
Gilead in the Bible

The Great American Read #1 is To Kill a Mockingbird. #100 is Dona Barbara.

Books on Tap Information:

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Veterans Day

18poster_lowresVeterans Day is celebrated on November 11 to honor and thank all military personnel who served the United States in all wars, particularly living veterans.

It was originally called Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of World War I. World War I officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. But, the fighting ended about seven months before this date, when the Allies and Germany put into effect an armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, was greatly considered the end of “the war to end all wars” and dubbed Armistice Day.

In 1926, Congress officially recognized November 11 as the end of the war, and in 1938, it became an official holiday. The holiday was a day set aside to honor the veterans of World War I. However, after World War II and the Korean War, Congress amended the commemoration yet again by changing the word “armistice” to “veterans” so the day would honor American veterans of all wars.  

Other countries also celebrate Veterans Day. Canada, Great Britain, and Australia call November 11 “Remembrance Day.” Canada’s observance is pretty close to our own, except many of its citizens wear red poppy flowers to honor their war dead. In Australia, the day is similar to our Memorial Day.

We now always acknowledge November 11 as Veterans Day as this “helps focus attention on the important purpose of Veterans Day: A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good” (US Department of Veterans Affairs), but this wasn’t always the case. In 1968, the Uniform Holidays Bill was passed by Congress, and it moved Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October. But in 1975 President Gerald Ford returned Veterans Day to November 11, citing the important historical significance of the date.

Resources for veterans and their families:
Virginia Department of Veterans Services
Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors
Mitchell Hash Foundation (local organization)
Legal Services for Veterans

Books about Veterans Day:
Caught Up in Time: Oral History Narratives of Appalachian Vietnam Veterans by John Hennen
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
Down Range: A Transitioning Veteran’s Career Guide to Life’s Next Phase by James D. Murphy and William M. Duke

Celebrating Picture Books

Picture Books - Blog Post Header

It’s Picture Book Month, a literacy initiative that honors printed picture books during the month of November. Celebrate with your young family members by getting together and reading one of these titles recommended by JMRL children’s librarians:

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal – When Alma Sofia Esperanza Josâe Pura Candela asks her father why she has so many names, she hears the story of her name and learns about her grandparents. (Also available in Spanish).

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins – When the class pet bites the finger of Penelope, a Tyrannosaurus rex, she finally understands why she should not eat her classmates, no matter how tasty they are.

The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates – A spacious umbrella welcomes anyone and everyone who needs shelter from the rain in this tribute to inclusion and tolerance.

Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin Kheiriyeh – Excited by her first trip to Coney Island, a young immigrant girl is fascinated by the differences between the beach culture in her new home and her native Iran.

Ginny Goblin is Not Allowed to Open This Box by David Goodner – Tempted by a box on a shelf that she is forbidden to open until dinnertime, Ginny engages in a series of wacky box-snatching strategies involving ninja suits, catapults and scaly serpents.

Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin – A wordless picture book in which two friends follow a young fox deep into the woods and discover a wondrous and magical world.

Baby Goes to Market by Atinuke – A story that gently introduces numbers while describing how an adorable baby covertly sneaks fruits into his doting mother’s shopping basket.

Summer Color! by Diana Murray – Two rambunctious children take off on a backyard adventure through the wonders and colors of summer.