“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

Voter Resources

The next election day is Tuesday, November 6. Midterm elections are held every four years, and they are always in November. Federal offices that are up for election during the midterm elections are members of the United States Congress- this includes all 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives, and 33 or 34 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate.

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Election and voting resources:
The Virginia Department of Elections is where you can check your voter registration status, find out where to vote, look at candidate information, and more.
USA.gov has information on the Midterm Congressional, State, and Local Elections.

Learn about the history of voting and elections:
Information on the history of voting and elections from USA.gov.
Discover why we vote on a Tuesday in November.

Get a free (or almost-free) ride to the polls:
The CAT (Charlottesville Area Transit) will offer fare-free service on election day. To find out which routes serve your polling location, check CAT’s polling precinct map.
Car 2 Vote is a volunteer service that gives rides to the polls on Election Day for free in Albemarle County and Charlottesville. For more information and sign-up, click here or call 434-260-1547.
Rideshare services Lyft and Uber are offering free and discounted rides to the polls on Election Day.

Check out some books about voting and elections from JMRL:
Founding Rivals: Madison vs Monroe, the Bill of Rights and the Election that Saved a Nation by Chris DeRose
Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians by Robert Merry