“There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”
The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale. The story takes place in the country known as Gilead; the United States no longer exists, although California and Texas are their own countries (hmmm, a little too realistic?). The time frame is unclear, although the story is unfolding after Gilead has become a historical anomaly and is being studied by academics. In the Handmaid’s Tale, the story of life in Gilead was told from the perspective of a Handmaid. In The Testaments, the story is told from the perspectives of a very powerful “Aunt” and two young women, one growing up in Gilead and one growing up in the more democratic country of Canada. Writings documenting each woman’s experience have been discovered by a historical association and are being studied and discussed in the year 2197.
The “Aunts” are very powerful, making “policy” and working with the “Eyes” to keep control over the female population. One of the first things that occurred after the coup was that all of the professional women were rounded up, some were killed and others were assigned roles. Women were no longer permitted to learn to read (except the Aunts) and were not permitted to work. Women were either Handmaids, Aunts or wives, and they could become wives at the tender age of 13. Of course in general, particularly the daughters of powerful men, the women were not free to choose their own husbands
Aunt Lydia, the most powerful Aunt, had been a Judge when the coup took place. After a number of meetings with the evil Commander Judd, and a stint in solitary confinement, she agrees to the role of Aunt. “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” She is very shrewd and finds a way to surpass more senior women and accede to a role of power. Lydia and her group of aunts are housed in Adria Hall and Aunt Lydia’s story is told from there. She arranges marriages, she punishes adversaries and she rules in support of the philosophy of Gilead with an iron hand. But of course, things are not always as they seem.
Agnes is a child growing up in Gilead when we are first introduced to her. She has a loving mother, Tabitha and a distant father, Commander Kyle. Tabitha tells Agnes that she went for a walk in the forest, came across an enchanted castle and rescued Agnes. Agnes’s childhood is privileged. The family has three “Marthas” (domestic help, but deemed so insignificant as to not be worthy of individualization). Agnes goes to school where they learn things like embroidery and are told about the tragedy of Baby Nicole, who was whisked away by terrorists to Canada and is considered a national tragedy. Agnes loves Tabitha but unfortunately, Tabitha dies of a mysterious illness when Agnes is 8 or 9. Commander Kyle quickly thereafter marries the evil Widow Paula. Once Paula arrives, her sole goal is to get Agnes out of the house. They determine to marry off the then 13 year old Agnes to the elderly Commander Judd, whose numerous prior wives have all died under suspicious circumstances. Aunt Lydia saves her and brings her into Adria Hall as an Aunt in training. Agnes’s story is Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A.
The third story involves Daisy. Daisy is living what the readers would consider a normal life in Canada with her parents Neil and Melanie. Neil and Melanie run a used clothing store called the Clothing Hound. They do not allow Daisy out of their sight. Neil is obsessed with old cameras and Melanie donates some of the clothing in the store to her friend Ada for charity. Periodically Pearl Girls” stop by the store to drop off brochures. The Pearl Girls are effectively missionaries for Gilead, attempting to convince Canadian women that Gilead can offer them a better life. Daisy’s life is a good one until both the Clothing Hound and her parents are blown up in a car explosion.
After the explosion, Daisy gets involved with a resistance movement and finds herself at Adria Hall where she meets Agnes. Things move quickly from there and not in a good way for Gilead. You need to read the story for the detail.
The book is a fun quirky read, although if you are looking for subtlety, you will not find it here. The story very clearly describes the connection between a religious state and the subjugation of women and the concept that power breeds corruption. Despite its lack of subtlety the book is well written and offers some thoughts and warnings for some of our current day behaviors. If you would like to read this novel you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.