Wendy Call
This essay was written in honor of the American Library Association's 2007 Banned Books Week. It appears in the Summer 2008 issue of Experience: Centrum's Magazine for the Creative Life.

See Something? Say Something!

Wendy Call

I first read Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the middle of the decade that Barbara Ehrenreich would call “the worst years of our lives”—a label that sounds quaint to me now. One autumn morning in 1987, I jammed into a Honda Civic with four college friends for a twenty-hour road trip to a backcountry campsite in the Smokey Mountains. I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” straight through, squeezed on the hump in the middle of the back seat, barely able to move my arms enough to turn the pages. Every few minutes I would say something along the lines of, “Oh my god, listen to this.…”

Somewhere in Kentucky, my friends finally told me to shut the hell up.

Published in 1985, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in a futuristic United States in which terrorism has led to martial law. Fearful citizens remain mostly silent as the constitution and elections are suspended. Women are forced into domestic servitude as an ecological crisis spirals. The story is told from the point of view of a woman named Offred, a “handmaid”—a concubine/prisoner. “The Handmaid’s Tale” often shows up on the American Library Association’s list of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.”

Last year, when the novel was #37 on that list, I read it again. I was camping on Vancouver Island, thinking I might be visiting those forest cathedrals and Technicolor tidepools shortly before they disappeared completely. I took Margaret Atwood’s book along with me because I wanted a Canadian author to accompany me across the border.

One of the nature walks at Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park leads visitors from a forest that was clear-cut after World War II to one that has never been logged. The walkway starts in the fifty-year-old forest and then descends toward the Pacific Coast, into massive cedars and sprawling ferns. The loudest sound in the forest is the creaking of the ancient trees. As I passed from new forest to old, a park service sign told me cheerfully, “In another one thousand years, the area you just walked through will look like the area you are about to enter.”

I wondered at the optimism, as I thought of a scene in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Offred explains to the reader:

 The news says that the coastal areas are being “rested.” Sole,
I remember, and haddock, swordfish, scallops, tuna; lobsters, stuffed and baked, salmon, pink and fat, grilled in steaks. Could they all be extinct, like the whales? I’ve heard that rumor, passed on to me in soundless words, the lips hardly moving…

All over Vancouver Island, bulldozers and cranes rumbled and growled, pushing over trees and flattening hills, making unobstructed views for luxury vacation condos. Just south of the Pacific Rim National Park, the Wild Pacific Trail was threaded by new roads steamrolled through old forest. Rolls of chain-link fencing and great piles of bulldozed trees were scattered all along the trail. The trailhead become obvious amidst the construction carnage thanks only to a billboard that announced, “Wild Pacific Trail: improved and greatly expanded by RE/Max.”
I felt as if I’d stepped into a novel.

On the long ferry ride from Vancouver Island back to Anacortes, I resolved to finish “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I sat hunched on one of the long, blue seats, the book in front of my face. One of the ferry guards wanted to know what I was reading; I held up the book so he could see the cover. He nodded. “Oh, a fairy tale. That sounds like a good read.”

“It’s not exactly a fairy tale,” I said, but I couldn’t tell whether he heard me.

He started to talk about the war in Iraq. “People have different opinions, I know,” he said. “But I think we need to get outta there. As soon as they figured out there weren’t any WMD, we should’ve been outta there. Now, I don’t want to be critical of the president, I don’t mean any disrespect, but I think that people have been lied to.”

I nodded my head. “Yes, yes, I agree with you.”

He kept talking. “I mean, I understand that we had to fight back after September 11. You can’t just let people do something that terrible and get away with it.”

I tried to cut in. “But Iraq didn’t have anything to do with September 11.”

He didn’t seem to hear me. He went on about September 11 and terrorists and the need to defend oneself, talking more to the air around us than to me. My eyes eventually dropped back to the page. I read:

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control…. That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.

I finished the last page of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as they announced our arrival at the Anacortes dock. I stood up and noticed the sign hanging on the wall above me:

One person can stop terrorism. You!
See something? Say something!
A stray bag left at a terminal.
An abandoned parcel on a vessel.
Lost property? Or something else?
The threat of terrorism is no longer a world away.
Washington State Ferries and You
Brought to you by the Homeland Security Institute

The next morning, home in Seattle, the Iraq War was on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for the first time in weeks. It was a local story—about a therapy program for Seattle-area children who have lost family members in the war. It went like this:

[T]he group leader handed each child a small tin of Play-Doh. Kaylee—an eight-year-old girl—wadded the clay into a ball. “This is the Iraqi that killed my dad,” she said, her voice rising as her fists pummeled the clay into a flat pancake. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” 

In the two weeks after the story about Kaylee, there was one front-page mention of an Iraqi war casualty in the newspaper. The article was one sentence long:  “At least 15 people are killed and about 30 wounded in a blast at a Shiite mosque in Baqouba.” During those two weeks, at least 402 Iraqi civilians died.

I thought again of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Atwood describes the beginnings of her novelistic, new United States:

Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Indentipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful….The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.