The Handmaid’s Tale

I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been on my “to read” list pretty much since it was first published in the United States in 1986. With the TV series out, I thought that some parents might wonder if/when the novel would be appropriate for their kids. I’m also going to assume that if you’re reading this, you already have a sense of what the book and/or the TV series is about. (If you need a summary, Wikipedia‘s is adequate.)

I don’t know of any tweens who would be ready for this novel—it requires a certain understanding of the world that most tweens just don’t have yet, regardless of what experiences they’ve had.

However, around the early to mid teens, a social, political, and cultural awakening tends to occur. My daughter wouldn’t have been ready for this at 14. At 15, though, she could probably have handled it, and now that she’s 16 I wouldn’t hesitate to let her read it if she wanted to. My 15 year old son…probably not yet. I would guess soon, though.

Although it covers very adult themes, the reflective, and in many ways passive, way the story is told may help keep the horror from being overwhelming. For instance, the gory detail in The Hunger Games was enough to chase my daughter away from the book. I don’t think she’ll have that issue with The Handmaid’s Tale. Rather than a breakneck “Look how everything is unraveling towards death!” approach, the slower pace shows how most people—nonheroic people, like most of us—might adapt to survive a dystopia. It’s thought provoking. It’s a puzzle to figure out what happened and why, and to see how our world is paralleling it in terrifying ways. But it’s a horror that creeps up on you, rather than smacking you upside the head. There are few outright villains—Offred is able to understand at least in flashes where all of them are coming from, how they’re also struggling to survive and adapt. These horrifying things are done by people, not monsters. People you might even like under other circumstances.

The story is broken up constantly with flashbacks told out of order as they come to Offred’s mind. I liked the flashbacks. Offred’s life is monotonous, and her memories are a welcome break both to her (usually) and to us. They provide important pieces we can try to fit into the overall narrative as the picture becomes clearer. But if you’re hoping for a “Here’s exactly what happened” moment, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not that easy, Offred admits to being an unreliable narrator, and we’re only seeing her point of view, her interpretation of what she sees, hears, experiences.

I’m not going to bother breaking possible issues down into categories and specific examples. This is a book aimed at adults. It contains sex, of course, although for the most part it’s reduced to a duty and a procreative act most of the time. When it’s described in any detail, it’s not terribly explicit. Male genitalia is described in not particularly flattering ways. There’s adultery, smoking, swearing, drinking, people being drugged, torture, public execution, suicide, thoughts of suicide, and probably more that I can’t think of right now. Religion is not seen in a good light.

The world of The Handmaid’s Tale is scary and depressing and shows many hints of issues we face in our world. Despite being over 30 years old, it has aged very well. It’s one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, but because of its reflective tone I was able to take it in. If your mid teen is socially and politically aware, particularly if they are interested in women’s rights, freedom vs. security, freedom of religion and thought, and similar issues, The Handmaid’s Tale might be exactly the right book for them right now. I think if I were a 15 or 16 year old reading it in today’s cultural and political climate, it would blow my mind. Consider reading it when your teen does—there’s so much fodder for good discussions.


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
First published in 1985 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Read the paperback copy that’s been on my shelves for over 20 years, through several moves


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