In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Grown-up reading: Margaret Atwood

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I have yet to see the Hunger Games movie, but was struck today by a Jezebel post summarizing some of the racist reactions to the casting of Rue as a black girl which were captured on Twitter.  It's a disturbing piece, and also points out how often people who declare themselves to be rabid fans aren't actually reading all that closely.  The Jezebel post quotes the first description of Rue in Suzanne Collins's novel: "She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that's she's very like Prim in size and demeanor...." A second post provides a run-down of the probable or certain skin color of every other major character in The Hunger Games.

Both pieces of commentary posit that Collins includes people of different races in the Hunger Games universe as part of her social criticism: the upper-class people in the Capitol are white and blond; the people in the Districts have a variety of darker skin tones.  It's not an issue I paid a lot of attention to while reading the books, but looking back now, it's clearly there.  (Nice to see, by the way, that the Ender's Game cast is similarly diverse.)

You asked last week about suggestions for contemporary adult authors whose books would make sense on your store's expanded YA shelves.  The first author who leaped to my mind would keep excellent company with the dystopian visions of Suzanne Collins and Orson Scott Card, though her body of work encompasses far more than that one genre.

I'm speaking, of course, of Margaret Atwood: novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer.  I started reading Atwood in high school, and teach her disturbingly prescient novel The Handmaid's Tale every semester in my Women's Voices course.  The Handmaid's Tale takes place in Gilead, a near-future version of the United States in which birth rates have plummeted, and the government has been taken over by religious fundamentalists who relegate all people to specific, rigid social roles.  Women are not allowed to work, read, or have their own money, and are divided up by function: Marthas cook and clean, Wives are the upper-class partners of Commanders, and Handmaids are fertile women who are assigned to Commanders in the hope that they'll produce more babies via what is essentially state-sanctioned rape.  The narrator, Offred, isn't a heroine in the traditional sense.  She's a fairly normal woman who dreams of escape but is kept in her place by fear; she's who most of us might be in the same situation. 

This isn't science fiction, but what Atwood calls "speculative fiction": everything that happens in her books is possible, if you take to a farther extent things people have already done in the world, and done to each other.  Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale in 1986; when I teach it, we read a packet of accounts of women under fundamental Islamic regimes in Afghanistan and Iran, and the parallels are frightening. 

Atwood is a terrific storyteller.  Her prose is gripping and easy to read, and she often structures her novels as a series of small revelations.  You begin in a world where you don't understand the rules; with every chapter, she gives you more information about what happened in the past to bring you there as well as what's about to happen in the future.  This is an author who knows cliffhangers.  Her books feel like pleasure reading, but scratch the surface and there are all kinds of deeper questions at play: about gender relations, about power, about genetic modification and the environment.

I'd happily hand The Handmaid's Tale (or Cat's Eye, or The Robber Bride, or The Blind Assassin, or Oryx and Crake) to a high school student to explore solo; each of them also rewards deep study.  I'd love to see them on your shelves.

Love, Annie

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