Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

“It was always a cruelty to promise them equality,” he said, “since by their nature they can never achieve it. We have already begun the merciful task of lowering their expectations."

TestamentsI have answered “The Handmaid’s Tale” to the question “what’s your favorite novel?” since the late 1990s. (It’s not really a true answer; in my heart of hearts I can’t pick just one favorite, but clarifying with “my favorite feminist/dystopia mashup is The Handmaid’s Tale” gets clunky.) I first read it in the summer of 1990, after I had discovered Margaret Atwood via Cat’s Eye. It was one of the first books I bought with my own money (I still own that copy, in fact; it is a BOTM edition that also includes Surfacing and Life before Man, which I haven’t ever actually read). “Nolite tes bastardes carborundorum” has been my motto ever since. In a sense, those two Atwood books I read in 1990 shaped the outcome of my life; in a way, they saved me. They gave me literature, gave me really good writing, as a reason to stay in this world when darkness had almost overcome me.

I don’t think I could claim The Handmaid’s Tale as my favorite novel, though, until I had read more widely and understood more clearly what the book does, how clearly it illustrates the ease of a society taking away women’s rights and how deeply ingrained sexism is. And then the way the ending sets the entire story on a different track.

I’ve read it seven or eight times. I wrote an essay about it while working on my undergrad and talked about it with some of my more widely-thinking English students when I was teaching. (One student came into my room once during my prep period and said “Mrs. Sorensen! I just finished a book I think you would love!” and it was The Handmaid’s Tale and yes…that was a good teaching day.) I lead a book group discussion about it at the library. And never once did I think “I really wish I knew what happened to Offred.”

What happened to Offred is so not the point of The Handmaid’s Tale. It isn’t a novel that works because of the plot, or only because of it. It is a novel that pushes you to ask yourself difficult questions, about yourself, about the people you have relationships with, and about society.

But apparently, that is just me, and Margaret Atwood has been getting requests like “what happened to Offred?” and “how does Gilead fall?” from readers ever since.

Hence, The Testaments.

I was fairly disappointed that Atwood, one of my favorite writers, would write a sequel. But, here it is, along with a TV show (which, nope: I’ve never watched. Yes, it’s my favorite novel. No, I don’t need someone else interpreting it visually for me.) I did buy the book—I actually pre-ordered it—because it’s kind of a personal rule that I must buy every book she writes. But I didn’t even flip through it. Just stuck it on my shelf. Really: I didn’t need to know what happened to Offred (or June, as we’ve now learned her name is.)

But a few weeks ago, The Testaments was on the “available now” screen when I needed something to listen to at the start of a long walk. So I downloaded it and gave it a try. I went into it with zero expectations, without any of my usual Atwood fangirl emotion. Not even sure I would finish it.

I ended up finishing it.

I ended up liking it, even. (But not loving.) Did it change my life like The Handmaid’s Tale did? No. Do I think it is Atwood’s best novel? Absolutely not. Am I glad I read it? Yes.

I wrote before that The Handmaid’s Tale pushes you to ask difficult questions, and one of them for me is “why do women so easily turn on each other?” The regime of Gilead would not work without women’s complicity, especially the Aunts’. There is also that mean-girl structure we can so easily settle in to, with the Commander’s wives wielding whatever small powers they might have over the Marthas and especially over the handmaids. This isn’t just a thing that happens in novels, either; in my adult lifetime I have experienced several relationships with adult women who, in the end, I could only understand as Queen Bees protecting their regime. Women go to anti-abortion rallies. Women declare that we don’t need feminism. And I could write many pieces about how women hold themselves down by embracing the patriarchy within religion.

That is a question that The Testaments seeks to answer, as we get to read Aunt Lydia’s story. We come to understand how she got to be in the place of (relative) power she holds in Gilead and the machinations she undertakes to keep it. Her motivations aren’t mean-girl based. Instead, they are simply her doing what she needs to do to stay alive within a social structure that would be very happy to kill her. “What good is it,” Aunt Lydia thinks, “to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot?” Is it better, morally speaking, to be killed by refusing to conform or to say alive by shoving other women under the steamroller?

The story is told in three voices: Aunt Lydia, who is writing her experiences down in secret, as women obviously shouldn’t be writing anything, and the “witness testimonies” of two girls, Agnes and Daisy. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander, being raised in the tenants of the Gilead regime. Daisy is a young teenager living in Canada. These three stories eventually converge. Some of the questions from The Handmaid’s Tale are answered. You even get to read an ending that is similar, another conference discussing the study of Gilead.

In the end, I am glad I read The Testaments. I didn’t hate it. But it lacked that edge that Atwood’s other books have had. I wasn’t terrified within the society, as I was when I read Offred’s story. Maybe Gilead seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who doesn’t remember living a different way is less terrifying. At the same time, I was still full of anger and resentment over the usurpation of women’s rights. That narrow, self-righteous way of thinking, dressed in the guise of “preserving women’s virtue,” is not something I’ve only found in books, and it is my least-favorite way of being treated. So the book definitely made me feel something, and it does an excellent job reminding readers, all over again, that yes: we still need feminism. (Say it louder for the women in the back of the room.)

And we continue to need the kind of book that reminds of that. As Aunt Lydia says, “history does not repeat itself, it rhymes.” The Testaments is a rhyme of a book that didn’t need a repletion, really. But if she had to write it to fling more story to the clamoring masses, this one was OK. At least they got their answers.

And I am left asking myself if I can still say The Handmaid’s Tale is my favorite [feminist dystopian] novel. It is, but now I feel like I have to clarify: I felt that way before it was cool.

[This is book #5 in my 2021 summer reading challenge.]


Three Pieces: If you never pick up the weight do you understand that you’re not carrying it?

Since I wrote THIS blog post, I have been paying attention to other pieces of experience that fit together in my life. I have always done this, I think, but I am doing it with more purpose lately. I think that truth is scattered and we have to watch for the pieces in order to make sense of our truths. Here are three pieces I am pondering recently.

“One of those ‘woke’ people who don’t understand what is happening.”
A person who is kind-of a friend, more of an acquaintance who I know through a Facebook group which she manages and I am a member of, wrote a post this week decrying “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” She also shared an article written by a business professor who felt that he had been “cancelled” but who, in my opinion, completely misunderstands both the current social movements and his own impact in the “cancelling” that happened to him.

I responded to the friend that I disagreed with the writer of the article, pointing out that we do need things like critical race theory because America is absolutely built on racism and bigotry (not to mention sexism) and that Dr. Seuss was not, in any way, cancelled. I was very polite and non-confrontational.

Then, in the way of Facebook, one of her friends, a person I don’t know and who definitely doesn’t know me, responded to my comment. She used five or six eye-roll emojis, wrote some scathing things about my assessment, and then finished with this sentence: “You are obviously one of those ‘woke’ people who don’t understand what is happening.”

I tried to just let this go, but it ate at me. I mean, first off, it’s a bit ironic that she equates “wokeness” with people who don’t understand anything. To me, being “woke” is a process of trying to understand your place within the larger structure of society, both your privileges and the way you contribute, knowingly or not, to how society works against the Other. It requires you to look at yourself in uncomfortable ways and to know that your way of being within the world is far from the only way, and not even the “normal” way, but just one.

I think to people like her, “woke” means swallowing the liberal agenda without stopping to think about it. It means jumping on bandwagons because it’s the cool thing to do. It means grandstanding ridiculous ideas that might threaten the norms we all know and love. It reinforces the MAGA ideals, even with the dufus out of power.

I finally wrote a response to her comment. I wanted to stay calm and not be antagonistic, but I think the last sentence might be a little barb:

I AM woke. I read and study a lot of different issues from different perspectives. "Woke" doesn't mean illiterate. It means I try to understand my relationship to other people and understand other people's perspective.

I think those who don't strive to do that clearly don't understand what is going on.

As I thought more about it, though, I think that I didn’t word it correctly. I wrote that wrong and didn’t express what I mean. I’m not going to change it because I think the distinction would be lost on this friend-of-an-acquaintance: I’m not woke. I am trying to be woke. I am working on being woke. It isn’t a status you achieve, like being able to do a pull up. It is a process, a way of thinking about the world, and a willingness to be open to understanding how my previous thinking, actions, or words might’ve been racist or insensitive, even though I didn’t intend them to be.

Understanding how I can make the world better is not a one-and-done deal. It is something I must continue to work on. It’s a process. But it isn’t about ignorance. It isn’t about just accepting the “liberal agenda,” whatever that means. It takes work. It requires reading, studying, and listening. It is the opposite of “not understanding.” Instead, it is about knowing I don’t understand fully, but am willing to work towards a better understanding.

We don’t need feminism anymore.
A few years ago, I became casual friends with a woman who I had purchased a service from. (Being vague on purpose because some of my closer friends would know who this is and I don’t want to be gossipy.) We saw each other accidentally, on walks around the neighborhood or at the grocery store or at a restaurant, and sometimes we talked through social media and at church. As I got to know her more, I started realizing that while we shared a connection through our creative endeavors, our thoughts about society and politics were very, very different. I tried to gently share my opinions with her, but it just didn’t work very well. So I kept our friendship at that accidental, let’s-talk-about-art connection because that is lovely, too.

Just before the pandemic got rolling, she wrote a post on FB about how we don’t need feminism anymore. Especially as members of the church, she emphasized. We don’t need feminism. I read the responses and so many were in agreement and I just…I had to pull back. There is disagreeing on politics but then there is an essentially different perspective about life and society in its totality and I can’t bridge that. There are so many ways we still need feminism. So, again…I did share my opinion on her post. I was gentle and non-confrontational but also firm in asserting that feminism IS necessary. The reaction from her friends was swift and bitter.

So I just left the friendship alone and then the shutdowns started happening and I didn’t see anyone, let alone a person who had been on the fringes of my life.

But I saw her again last week. Saw her with her cute daughters, and all sorts of emotions started eating at me. I of course was friendly, and likely my emotional response was not apparent to her. But I couldn’t help thinking about the tools she is not giving her daughters. And I almost felt…envious? Yes, that is the right word. Envious, just a little, that there are people in the world who are so unable to look at reality that they don’t see reality. I don’t want to live like that. But I also have this small part of me that thinks what does any of this accomplish? I can’t fix the world by myself. I can witness, I can watch, I can read and explore and try to be—ah, here it is, a connection— “woke,” but if I am honest it is painful. It hurts to see the ways that women are complicit in their own undoings, the way that they don’t see the power imbalances and how they are impacted by them. (Let alone all of the political insanity she also doesn’t pay attention to.) What might it be like to not feel any of that? If you never pick up the weight do you understand that you’re not carrying it?

(I am not going to go into all the reasons we do still need feminism in this post, because it is already growing too long, but let me assure you: we still need feminism. We will always need feminism.)

I chatted with her for a bit and then I found myself thinking: maybe I should put it down. Maybe my efforts to know, to understand, and to be a person who is less hurtful to others are pointless. Maybe I’m just up here on my high horse thinking my efforts might make a difference while really I am just being ridiculous.

“That doesn’t make me a communist.”
Last night when I got home from work Kendell said “I just watched something on the news that I think you will appreciate.” He showed me the introduction, with Matt Gaetz (I never can decide, is he Beavis? Or Butthead?) questioning Congress about how the military’s study of critical race theory is impacting the soldiers. This is not the first time Gaetz has spread the propaganda that we are being threatened by wokeness, that elementary-aged children are learning critical race theory (they aren’t; it is taught in universities but honestly I think it should be part of high school curriculums), and that the military is soft because of these things.

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered him.

(Listen all the way through because Brian Williams gets in an awesome dig at the end.) “I do think it is important for those of us in uniform to be open minded and to be widely read. . . I’ve read Mao Zedong, I’ve read Karl Marx, I’ve read Lenin, that doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding. I personally find it offensive that we are accusing our [military leaders] of being “woke”  or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there.” He goes on to explain what the basis of critical race theory is based on, which is the historical fact that America is based on racism, slavery, and bigotry, from the very beginning. (Slaves arrived in what would become the United States before the Pilgrims even, for example.)

My thoughts about my little personal struggle to continue to try to learn, change, and grow suddenly grew clear. I actually felt—dare I say it—a little bright spark of hope. Milley’s response made me remember that while it often seems we are living in a country ruled by people who refuse to look at reality with an objective lens, who have never read a book in their life, who refuse to look outside of their own comfort zones, there still are the other type. Call them woke, call them educated, call them socially aware, call them freaking English majors for all I care. Just that they exist and are trying to change the route our country is taking: that gives me courage.

Being woke is not a negative thing. And these three puzzle pieces have fit together into a larger understanding for me:

I don’t care if someone tries to insult me by calling me “woke.” I don’t care that my efforts might be ridiculously small and ultimately generate no larger change within society.

I am going to continue trying. I am going to push forward using an open mind and, yes: making my decisions based on what I learn from reading widely.

The critics of the concepts behind being woke, critical race theory, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and all the other social movements working in America today are narrow-minded. They are frightened of how their positions of power might be lessened if society changed, and they are not going to stop their assault on democracy. So I will work just as hard to hold it up.


Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

I realized that the words most often used to define us were words that described our function in relation to others. Even the most benign words—maiden, wife, mother—told the world whether we were virgins or not. What was the male equivalent of maiden? I could not think of it. What was the male equivalent of Mrs., of whore, of common scold?... Which words would define me? Which would be used to judge or contain?

Last week when I was at a physical therapy appointment, one of the techs asked me for some book recommendations. I told her I always like to talk about the book I’ve most recently finished, and as I had just stayed up past midnight the night before to finish The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, I talked Dictionary of lost wordsabout it first. It is a historical fiction novel based in the time that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was being compiled, a huge undertaking that ended up lasting roughly forty years. Our protagonist Esme lives with her father, who is working on the OED at the Scriptorium in Oxford, one of several different places where editors and writers worked to research the history and meaning of words. She grows up as the dictionary gets longer, her entire world revolving around it.

I told the PT tech that what the book explores is how the OED is, for all its lofty goals of creating a complete examination of all the words in English since Saxon times, a record of the time it was created. Namely, it was written by white Victorian men, who had a specific worldview. Esme, being a female, brings another perspective to the dictionary. After sneaking out the annotation for the word bondmaid, She starts collecting words on her own, gathered from women, words that the OED editors would never include because they were “obscene” or because they didn’t come from an established print source. “It is a novel that reminded me that we still need feminism” is how I wrapped up my explanation to the PT tech, and then I drove home and thought about it some more, especially since I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what draws me to certain books. For me, feminism in some form is always a part of my favorite books, which is one reason I loved The Dictionary of Lost Words.

The book was different than what I had expected. The reviews I read made me think it would be more of a literary mystery of sorts, a la Possession: A Romance. It isn’t that, really. Instead, it is a book that tells most of the story of a character’s life, covering many years. (I’m a librarian, but I don’t know if there is a name for that genre.) What makes it work—without giving away much of the story—is that as she is exploring “women’s words,” Esme is experiencing many of the things a woman could experience in those years, including some time spent with the suffragettes trying to get the women’s vote in England. In one of my favorite chapters, she’s sent to Scotland to spend a fortnight hiking in order to help her move past a depression she is experiencing, and her gradual return to a happier spirit resonated with me. She takes this trip with her friend Lizzie, who has been a sort of—ironically—bondmaid to her all of her life, and on their last day as they are talking, Lizzie says “God is in this place…I feel him more here than I ever have in church. Out here it’s like we’re stripped of all our clothes, of the callouses on our hands that tell our place, of our accents and words. He cares for none of it. All that matters is who you are in your heart. I’ve never loved him as much as I should, but here I do.” And that so exactly encompasses why I love my Sundays spent in nature church that just on that basis I will love this book forever.

I’m not sure this is exactly what that PT tech was looking for in her quest for books to help her get excited about reading fiction again. It is a slowly moving story, not an adventure, not full of mystery or anticipation. Just the story of a life and how it connects to the larger world. Which is one of my favorite types of books. I’m glad I read it!


Book Review: The Grace Year (WITH SPOILERS)

Isn’t that the biggest sin of all for a woman? Not to be of use?

Grace yearThe novel The Grace Year by Kim Liggett is set in a society, The County, where sons are valued and men hold all of the roles within the society, but women exist only for the capabilities as a mother (who will hopefully produce man sons) and a wife. Women who are not chosen as wives work in the fields or markets, without any social status or wealth. Enjoying sex is not a concept for women; they are expected to lie “legs spread, eyes to God.” In the County, men believe that women come into a type of magic during their sixteenth year. As the magic will do damage to men, these teenage girls are exiled into the woods for an entire year, their “grace year,” where they find their magic, let it work through their bodies, and come home (if they survive) pure and ready for marriage. Aside from being away from civilization and such things as food, clean water, shelter, medicine, or social structures, the girls are threatened by poachers. If a poacher manages to capture a grace year girl outside of the encampment where they live, he kills her and her body is cut into pieces, which are then eaten by the men in the County as a way for them to “consume” the women’s magic and keep it for themselves.

The main character is Tierney, who, as the novel begins, is preparing for her grace year. She is unlikely to receive a veil before she leaves—no one will choose to marry her, because she is “Tierney the Terrible” who likes to be outside in the woods or the fields rather than being in the proper places for women. She is OK with this; she just wants to survive her grace year and then come home to work in the fields, where she will not have to be beholden to a husband or a family but can at least be outside moving her body. Things at the veiling ceremony do not go as expected, and then her grace year begins.

This is a hard book to discuss without giving away any spoilers. If you haven’t read it but want to, just read this paragraph but no further, as the plot twists are worth discovering within the story rather on someone’s blog. I listened to this book and the reader, Emily Shaffer, was excellent. I almost gave up on it, though. The characters weren’t grabbing me and I felt frustrated by the mean-girl aspects, even though they are important to the plot. I stuck with it, though (mainly because the next book I wanted to listen to wasn’t available yet!) and about one-third the way through I started loving it. The writing style is fluid and moving; the pacing is a bit uneven but not terribly so. Many reviews I’ve read have compared the book to The Handmaid’s Tale, probably because of the highly restrictive community, but for me it was more of a dystopia+religious-cult+nature-adventure blend. I had a few issues with the story but overall I am glad I read it.

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Spoilers follow!

Once the girls are at their grace year encampment—which is on an island off the coast of a large lake, and is surrounded by cedar trees made into a fence (I could never envision this fence, as it is sometimes described as tree-like and sometimes smooth and not-of-nature)—the tribalism The County nurtures in the women comes to a full manifestation. Someone has to be in charge, and Kiersten, a girl who was popular and beautiful at home, takes that role, even though Tierney knows many of the skills they will need to survive for a year in the woods with very little. Kiersten thinks that things like clean water in rain barrels (instead of the water from the well, which is coated with a green moss) is pointless, as their magic—figuring out what it is and then how to get rid of it—is the point. This section was the height of my frustration, as Tierney is clearly a better leader and yet all of the girls in her alliance slip, one by one, onto Kiersten’s side. Even though that might be what really would happen in such a situation (the dynamics of girl-on-girl cruelty are fascinating and myriad), the girls’ inability to see how they are damaging themselves by aligning with her power made me crazy. And Tierney doesn’t stand up for herself much, but lets Kiersten bully her in a way that doesn’t seem authentic to her.

The girls think their magic will be some sort of supernatural power. Kiersten, of course, “finds” hers first: she declares her magic is that she can make anyone do whatever she wants, just with her power, and when girls do something unexpected, she takes credit for their actions. Since in The County what happens in the grace year stays in the grace year—literally no one talks about their experiences, not even mothers to help their daughters—there is a sort of mythology that has built up around the types of magic. Flight, invisibility, the strength to make the sun set or rise, for example. Tierney is having none of it; as a person who has spent time in the woods and with an observant and scientific nature, she doesn’t know exactly what the “magic” is but doesn’t, deep down, believe it is real.

I found the concepts that the story builds on to be fascinating. What is the power or magic that women hold? If men fear it and try to subdue it, what happens? Could they remain in power if women didn’t allow men to take their magic away? If you are a woman living in a society that is constructed to keep you powerless, how do you find power? These are topics I love exploring through fiction (The Power, Gather the Daughters, All the Truth That’s In Me for example) and so some of my…dissatisfaction, I guess, in this book was that it played it safe.

I think the men in this story are afraid of women’s sexual power. Thus the “eyes to God” rule and the non-existence of women’s pleasure. That is one of the forms of magic that the grace year is supposed to strip away from them. Tierney, as a character who is starting to see the strings the men use to control them, is in a unique position to figure this out, and then, when she runs out of the encampment to escape Kiersten’s violence, she has a bigger chance. She is rescued by a poacher named Ryker, who doesn’t skin and then kill her, but instead takes her to his blind and tries to heal her. He does this because her father, who takes care of The County’s medical needs, also secretly helps the poachers. Tierney’s father saved Ryker’s friend from an illness, but only on the condition that Ryker would make sure Tierney survived her grace year.

And herein lies my deepest struggle with this book: they fall in love. Even though Ryker has detailed drawings of her naked body, marking all the scars and her father’s brand, so if he does decide to kill her she can be identified by The County. Even though that is his entire existence and identity: killing grace year girls and cutting their bodies apart. I mean, he’s new at this and has never actually killed a grace girl yet, but it’s his career path. Falling in love with your captor, finding out he’s really a captor with a heart of gold and is only doing it for some noble reason (here, to save his mother, who has taken six of the County’s banished girls under her wing) is one of my least-favorite tropes in a book. And it’s especially disturbing to find it in an avowed “feminist” novel.

But I also think a romance is essential to the point of the story, which is that one of the women’s powers is their sexuality. I just deeply, deeply disagree with the shape the relationship takes. Plus, their “love” is built on so little: him taking care of her. At one point he starts explaining his plan to his friend, that he and Tierney are going to escape, go west, find another settlement where they can be together, and she doesn’t even know she has feelings for him yet. Plus, if sexuality is one of the magics, I think it was necessary to actually witness the sex, rather than the fade-to-black sex.

The other very real magic that women hold is their relationship with other women. Kiersten knows this and uses it to her advantage, and honestly it is the magic I think the men want the women to keep. Or at least, keep it in the way it develops during the grace year, the Lord-of-the-Flies brutality that women wield against each other. If they keep that tool and use it against other women, it makes it easier for me to remain in power, because in essence women do much of the work for them. (The opposite form of this power is women standing up for women, which is just barely explored in the story. Perhaps there will be a sequel.) When she goes back to The County after her grace year, Tierney finds that women are starting a very quiet and careful rebellion away from that type of magic.

Anyway. Here I am at almost 1700 words about one book. Clearly it struck many nerves for me. It is far from a perfect book, but I am glad I read it. I would love to discuss more with you if you’ve read it too.


The Blazing Purple F on My Back: Thoughts on Feminism, The Handmaid's Tale, and the Barrett Confirmation

I wrote this post based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel, not the TV show. I haven’t watched the TV show. I probably never will watch the TV show. Nor have I read the sequel Atwood published last year, The Testaments, because I’m fairly annoyed she even wrote it. Does that make me a handmaid’s-tale originalist?

In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most important characters is an Aunt Lydia. In the society of Gilead, there are strict social assignments for women; the Aunts are women who instruct the Handmaids (whose sole function is to try to conceive and carry a baby to full term, preferably one who is not a “shredder.”) Women have almost no power in Gilead, except for the Aunts. In fact, the social structure wouldn’t work without the Aunts, because they are the people who indoctrinate the Handmaids. The Aunts support the patriarchal structure by subduing women’s ability to think and act for themselves. By fulfilling this role, they gain the tiny amount of power the society allots them. They can move about the world with more freedom; they can “work,” and they are not beholden to a Commander as the Handmaids and the Marthas are.

Handmaids tale folio
(Illustration from the Folio edition)


My thoughts were crowded yesterday with this story and these characters, as the reality of the Barrett confirmation sunk into my psyche. (I knew about it the night before, of course, but I blocked it out. Then I went to sleep and my psyche let it in.) But I also thought about America itself, and what I was taught about America. I thought of the lessons I had in my fifth grade class, which is my first memory of learning about politics; Mr. Strong taught us that one of the defining characteristics of America’s society is that the Supreme Court is impartial, neither conservative nor liberal. I remembered saying the Pledge of Allegiance on the first day of third grade, when I thought I might love school again after hating second grade, and the day in eighth grade when I said it in Spanish. (I can still say it in Spanish.)  I thought about other history and politics classes I took, in junior high and high school and college. The series of checks and balances that were designed to keep justice impartial. The scarf across Justice’s eyes, meaning she was blind to left or right. The ideals a president should represent, whether he (it was always a he) was a Democrat or a Republican: intelligence, fairness, broadmindedness. The concept that politicians were, in effect, in their position to serve the American people.  The lofty goals of the founding fathers, based on the lofty morals of the Greeks who invented Democracy.

I believed in that America. I thought that America was real. Of course, as I grew older and I learned more about humanity, I also learned the reality of people. How often we are motivated by selfishness and greed. How power corrupts. How racism affects so many people. How women's voices are silenced. How presidents have simply been men, with both good and bad traits who either rose to the challenges of their times or didn’t. How history is almost always only one side of the story, usually the victor’s. How much is erased, how much is filtered through the storyteller’s perspective. But I still believed in that America. Or at least, in the possibility of it. Imperfect, but we all had that beautiful, ambitious goal of creating a society where everyone is free.

And I thought about the Aunts. 

I first read The Handmaid's Tale during the summer after I graduated from high school. This comment from Aunt Lydia stuck out to me. It stayed with me even after I finished the book; when I reread it a few years later, I read waiting to meet it again, because it troubled me. I didn't quite understand it:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Freedom from: the threat of rape. The threat of other violence. The necessity of getting out of bed in the morning to go to work. The real pain of dropping your baby off at daycare. The worry of finances. The heartache of a bad marriage. The emotional drain of always feeling less than because you are a woman. Freedom from those things can only be gained, Aunt Lydia is saying, if you give up your freedom to: to make your own choices, to control your own body. Isn't it worth it?

Whether or not it's worth the exchange is not in the thought process of the Aunts. Of course it is worth it, because the freedom to brings risk, while the freedom from brings safety. That that safety is suffocating doesn't matter. The lack of risk matters, and if the Handmaids understood their value (as breeders, of course, not as human beings), they wouldn't feel suffocated. It is the Aunts' duty to ensure this way of thinking, to protect the women from their own weaknesses. They feel righteous in their position, these Aunts, because they are a hinge. They "protect" women from themselves while simultaneously ensuring men's power (and thus their own illusion of power).

Those Greek ideals of the founding fathers? They are still levers pulled mostly by men, and the Aunts are behind them, supporting their elbows.

When the Kavanaugh confirmation happened, part of me was destroyed. It changed my relationship with male figures of power forever. It altered my relationship with my faith in ways I doubt will ever be repaired. But part of me knew: it is men being men. Bros are going to support their bros. It’s what they do. Men are always going to support men, even the worst of men, because in doing so they reinforce their own power structure.

But this Barrett confirmation?

This is a whole other level of betrayal.

Barrett is an Aunt. Rather than rebelling against the dominant male power structure, she believes it. She uses the male system to gain power, and the power she wields she will use to harm women.

Yesterday, I sat in my kitchen. I needed to get things done at home before I left for work—clean the kitchen, swap out the laundry, get some packages ready to mail. If nothing else, I needed to put clothes on and brush my hair. But for a little while, I couldn’t. For a little while, all I could do was sit on the stool in my kitchen, weeping. Because all of those ideals, all of those lessons about the constructs of American society that keep us from slipping back into the dark ages: they are broken. Or maybe they were only ever lights and mirrors, only the appearance of a democracy.

What do I believe in now? Now that I have lost my religious faith and my national pride?

Men using power to hurt women is one thing. It is what they have tried to do for most of human history.

Women using power to hurt women?

Well, that has been done throughout history, too. There have always been Aunts. Think, for example, of the Salem Witch Trials. There would have been far less damage done to women if there hadn’t been so many Puritan Aunts, busy turning other women in as witches because that was the access to power that men allowed them. Or what the nuns did to orphans during the 1950s in Quebec. Or your local high school Queen Bee. I have known them at church, in jobs, at school. Especially in the Mormon church, where so many women refuse to even acknowledge the way the power structures of the church suppress them.

Maybe this part of me is breaking, too. Maybe feminism is the next thing that will break.

I’m not sure I could count how many times I have had a discussion with so many different men, churchgoers and neighbors and friends and random library patrons and even family members. Those men who think that the problem with feminism is that it seeks to elevate women over men at all costs. That, to me, has always been a basic misunderstanding—a blatant one, in fact, for if you try to learn about feminism, you will start to understand that it is not about elevating women above men. It is about equality. About anyone, whatever their gender (or orientation, or race) being able to be the person they are, not the person society says they must be.

No one gets to say that anymore.

Because no feminist worth the purple F scrawled on her back would be OK with this confirmation. Not just because most Americans wanted whoever wins next week’s election to nominate the next Supreme Court judge. Not just because RBG’s dying hope was that she wouldn’t be replaced by a trump nominee. Not because the Republicans said we could hold them to their word if this happened in 2020. Not because Supreme Court justices should be impartial, not lackeys for the current president. Not because having the confirmation at the White House blatantly disregards even the smoke-and-mirrors approach of objectivity.

But because Barrett is an Aunt. Her motivation isn’t equality for all. It isn’t liberty or justice for all, not in English or Spanish or Swahili. It isn’t even to make things more equal for her own gender. Her motivation is suppression and power. It is the imperative of all Aunts throughout history: The correct way to live in this world is the way that men decide, and the Aunts exist to make sure that male vision becomes reality. The rest of us—Handmaids or Marthas—can submit willingly or be forced, but the Aunts will see it done.

The Aunts are traitors to their gender.

In a few days, I will be able to remember that the Handmaids are the rebels. But yesterday. But today. Right now I am still consumed with rage, frustration, sorrow, grief. 

A today will come, though, when I can turn those emotions into change.

We cannot let the Aunts win.


Book Review: Gather the Daughters (WITH SPOILERS!)

Gather the daughters""If she could start her life over again, she decides, she would shout more. She would bite like the dream dogs. She wouldn’t be so scared of everything all the time. She wouldn’t come when Father called, she would stay where she was. She wouldn’t lose her breath when Mr. Abraham said her name, but speak boldly. She would stomp and yell and be loud and big, eat until she grew six feet tall and then run away."

I recently read two novels about girls living within a fundamentalist Christian cult. The first one was Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed. In this novel, a society of people is living on an island, sheltered there after the outside world has been devastated by fire, war, and disease. In this society, men are in charge. Children are educated, but the only thing they are allowed to read is “Our Book,” which is a sort of amalgam of the Bible. Everyone is allowed to have two children, and after your children have grown up and gotten married, you drink something that kills you and your body is buried in the fields so as to fertilize the ground for future crops. When a girl begins having periods, she has reached the age where she can be married. During the summer, the children are allowed to simply run wild over the island; people leave food on their porches for them, and then they come home when it begins to get cold. The girls who have “grown up” have their summer of fruition instead, where they are all gathered at different houses in the community along with whichever adult men have been chosen for that summer. This is really the only time they are allowed a choice, as they get to pick who they will be married to.

Before the summer of fruition, fathers are expected to “lie with” their daughters. (So as to avoid getting their wives pregnant again.)

The story rotates around four girls: Vanessa, Caitlin, Amanda, and Janey. Each of them are trying to resist, in varying ways, the roles and rules their society puts on them. Janey is the most vocal; she is starving herself, existing on the barest minimum of food, so that she won’t start having periods. Amanda is newly-married and newly-pregnant; when a midwife’s ritual tells her she will be having a girl she realizes her daughter will have to experience what she did with her own father. Caitlin’s father beats her and her mother and she is trying to find her own voice to tell him to stop. And Vanessa, whose father is a wanderer (the men who both lead the community and are able to leave the island to gather supplies and, sometimes, new recruits) who sometimes brings books to the island.

Each girl’s experiences illuminate the different facets of the community. And while it was a difficult book to read, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I tend to like dark, problematic stories, and this one does a good job at using this imagined community to subtly point out issues in our current reality. 

However, and THIS WAY LIE SPOILERS, the ending.

I was so infuriated by the ending.

It seems like the cool thing to do right now is to compare feminist dystopian novels to The Handmaid’s Tale. I get it—it’s a good way to market a novel. And this one is, true to form, compared in this way. I suppose there are some similarities; the scope of the communities is different, but women being controlled by a male-dominated society is a shared theme. Main characters trying to push back against the social restraints also appears in both books.

And, if you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, you know the ending is…well, I’ve heard people describe it as “lame,” “frustrating,” “disappointing,” “confusing.” People feel like they’re left hanging, not knowing what happened to Offred. For me, I have always thought that ending was brilliant. Partly because the van driving up isn’t the actual end, the epilogue is. The end-frame of the epilogue changes the whole arc of the story, the whole purpose. This is why I feel pretty bitter about Margaret Atwood writing the sequel. It wasn’t necessary, despite everyone clamboring to know what happened to Offred. “What happened to Offred” isn’t really the point. What happened to the country and to the women inside it is, and the epilogue gives just enough details for you to imagine for yourself. Besides, literature often has ambiguous, unsettling endings.

So, back to Gather the Daughters. Yes, like The Handmaid’s Tale it has an ambiguous ending. I felt like it ended that way to check off some imaginary list of how a feminist dystopian novel should end. To make the Handmaid’s Tale connection stronger. But they are such different books (and the author, while good, isn’t quite the stylist that Atwood is), with different purposes.

(OK, I lied: HERE is where the spoilers start!)

The book sets up a story of rebellion. Each of the four girls rebels in her own way, but Vanessa is the least rebellious. Each one is looking for her way out of the society and away from men’s control. And, one by one…each of the four rebellious daughters dies. Until we get to Vanessa, and the novel ends with her being rescued when her father is offended by the Wanderers threatening to burn his books.

Listen, I’m all for saving books! And for books! And education! But he didn’t decide to flee until his books were threatened. Not when he had routine sex with his own daughter. Not when the wanderers killed Amanda and several other young girls. Not when his daughter was nearly raped. Nope. When his books were threatened, that’s when he decided to act.

AND.

All of the actions the characters took to save themselves were for naught. They pushed back and they were punished with death. Vanessa pushed back, but she didn’t save herself. Instead she was saved as a sort of collateral saving—get the books and oh! better grab Vanessa too!

I think my level of disappointment reflects my level of engagement in the book. The world-building was good, I loved the writing style, I was deeply involved in caring for the characters.

So the big fat nothingburger of the ending was a enormous disappointment. All of that setup, the rebellion of girls living on the beach together, their realizations that probably their leaders were lying to them, the sinking church…there was so much possibility for something to happen. And then it just…ended.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps this will one day have a sequel. I hope so, but even if it does, I’m not sure I will pick it up. Trick me twice and all that…


There is No Cure for Knowledge: Part 1

One of my most abiding memories from childhood is the cold autumn Saturday my dad took me to a BYU football game. I don’t know why this happened, as I was not a fan of football and we weren’t like other families I knew, who bought season tickets. But there we were, walking across a college campus together. He told me that he hoped one day I would go to college. He said “one day you can go to college classes and learn everything you want. You’re smart. Don’t be like me and waste your time and your smartness. Spend your time learning.” We stepped into the stadium; he bought me popcorn and a hot chocolate, and while I remember absolutely nothing about the football game (I was likely bored out of my mind, or maybe I brought a book with me), I remember so clearly sitting on the cold metal bench, eating popcorn one puffed piece at a time, imagining myself going to college. By the time the game ended and we walked back to the car, it was a certainty for me: I would go to college.

Of course, life got messy, as life does, and once I’d destroyed my chances at the university I wanted to go to the most (the University of Utah) and my scholarship opportunities, I found myself twenty years old, married, and trying to live in a religion that focused on women having families, not getting an education. But I still had that same certainty that I wanted to go to college. So I pieced it together. I worked at a software company that would pay for some college costs, so I went to the local community college while I worked full time and got my Associate’s degree. After that, we built our house and I had Haley, but I wasn’t done yet. When I was laid off from my job, I had access to a reeducation grant, so I grabbed the chance, swallowed my pride, and did what I had never wanted to do: walked back onto the BYU campus and applied. (It’s another entire blog post to explain why that choice was hard for me.)

For me, college was always about books. During the two years I wasn’t going to school, I vowed to learn everything I could about books, reading, writing, and literature, so I haunted the library. (The library where I work now, strangely enough.) Those years of scattershot reading taught me about feminism, history, mythology, racism, oppression, ingenuity. Even grammar! I found genres I’d only had vague ideas about before, like essays and microfiction. I delved into poetry and discovered poets I still love today. I read novels. I read some Shakespeare. I tried to read what I thought I was supposed to read: Hemingway and Hawthorne, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but I found I liked women authors better.

I was shaping my reading and learning tastes at that time in my life, and I think that my ability to be unencumbered by professors’ opinions during those years was immensely helpful. I learned to like what I like rather than what someone else thought I should like. But I was also learning. About history and other cultures and writing styles and genres and how writers are grouped. I was also learning how to think. All those books taught me that there are uncountable ways of being in the world, and mine is just one of them, neither right nor wrong; the myriad ways of looking at human existence is one of the astounding parts of human existence.

 I ended up loving many things about my experience at BYU. While I didn’t have the traditional college experience with dorms and roommates and making life-long friends, I learned. Yes—even at a conservative, religious university, I learned so much. Those two years of studying on my own meant that I had odd pieces of knowledge that my classmates didn’t have, and sometimes (OK, quite often) their perspectives were baffling to me, but again—it was about learning all of the things one learns from an English degree, but also it was about learning more of people. I had fantastic professors and horrible ones. I finally learned what people meant by “critical theory.” I learned that in literary circles, Dead White Male Writers are revered by many…but there are counter cultures, too, and I explored those whenever I could.

When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, Haley was four, Jake was one, and I was unknowingly pregnant with Nathan. A friend asked me, a few days after I graduated, what I would do next. At that point, I was exhausted. I wanted to just spend time with my kids. So, for a couple of years, that’s what I did. I graduated, and then I became a stay-at-home mom. I still held that image of myself I had created during the football game so long ago, a mental picture of who I would be as an adult. It had crystalized: I wanted a PhD, I wanted to be a college professor.

But again, life got messy. For a long time, I have felt like the Universe has wanted me to understand that sure…I’ve learned a lot about humanity, but it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t have value because it is sort of invisible. My form of knowledge means I can go to a museum and tell you stories about many of the things there, but I can’t create anything anyone can sell. I can’t program computers or write software programs or create apps. I don’t have medical knowledge; my skills are just in understanding, and that isn’t very marketable. I ended up being a high school English teacher, and then a librarian. Am I done? I wish I wasn’t. I want to get a Master’s degree. Somewhere in the messiness, however, I lost that ability I used to have, that belief that my dad was right, that I was smart enough to do anything. I don’t feel that anymore, so I don’t know how to take another step. Part of me started with what the Universe wanted me to know: my accumulated knowledge is sort of useless. The world doesn’t care.

But also within the messiness, I have continued to read. I thought that getting a Bachelor’s degree would teach me everything I wanted to know, but of course it didn’t. Knowledge is endless, and it is spread out everywhere. It’s not just found in one source, and almost everything has a piece of truth in it somewhere. I might not have advanced degrees, but I do still have knowledge.

So here I am: a middle-aged white woman with a couple of Bachelor degrees that don’t matter much to the world at large. I know a whole lot about books and history and about finding information. I can teach you how to structure an essay and I can give you a book of poems that would change your life if you read it. I could tell you how to correctly use a hyphen and what the difference is between an en- and an em-dash.

Meanwhile, the world is insane with a pandemic and racial uprisings. What do I have to offer?

Every day, I read Facebook threads and listen to conversations where people say things that I consider to be shallow and narrow-minded. And while yes, dear Universe, I so thoroughly understand your point, I also have started to realize: education matters.

I mean, I know that. I have always known that.

But the world’s current issues are telling me more and more: education matters. Knowledge matters. Most importantly, the knowledge that your way of looking at the world is not the only one—knowing that matters.

My next post will continue these thoughts. It’s the one I sat down to write this morning, but I couldn’t write it without explaining these pieces of my history. In the largeness of today’s social issues, my little thoughts are likely unimportant. But I’m going to share them anyway, because I also know this is true: narrow-mindedness got us into these issues, and the only way out of them is with the wide-open thought processes that education can bring.

[You can read the second part of this post HERE.]


Book Review: Girl by Edna O'Brien

Back in January or February, the literary world was kind of buzzing about a book called American Dirt. It tells a story about a woman and her son who, after their husband and father is executed by a drug dealer, flee to America as immigrants. The controversy over the book is that it is written by a white woman, a first-time author who received a HUGE advance and tons of publicity. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for new writers receiving attention. And there are entire books written about the skill of writing from a perspective other than your own; men write female characters all the time, women write male characters, writers of all genders write from all sorts of perspectives. But writing through the lens of a different race is, I believe, more difficult, and also riskier. Before the controversy, the book sounded mildly interesting to me—I even put it on one of my lists of “books I’m anticipating” on my Instagram—but as I read both sides of the issue, I leaned more and more towards not reading it. What pushed me ultimately to “nope” was the fact that at the book-release party, the tables were decorated with barbed wire.

Critics called it “trauma porn,” a book written to allow readers to witness all the gory details of the immigrant experience with the point being voyeurism, not understanding, compassion, or the spark to make changes. They also pointed out that the Mexican voices telling these stories didn’t receive six-figure advances and fancy release-date parties.

I belong to a couple of book-themed Facebook groups, and in one in particular, this book came up many times as one people loved. There would usually be one or two dissenting voices, but mostly people enjoyed it. I wrote a very brief response on one of them, trying not to sound judgmental. As one of the things I have learned as a librarian is that there are books for every reader, and there shouldn’t be any shame in reading what you love, my intent wasn’t to criticize or belittle, but just to raise a few points to consider. The original poster got right back with me, letting me know that she thinks it’s a waste of time to spend so much emotional energy thinking about why you read a book, or why you like it. “Books are for entertainment,” she wrote. (I resisted writing back about the oddness of being “entertained” by immigrants struggling through miles of desert, being threatened by rapists and trying not to die.)

That is true for some readers, and that is fine. For me, though, the point of reading isn’t only to be entertained. I am passionate about books—even, like American Dirt, books I don’t read—because I want them to spark ideas, thoughts, and knowledge within me. I read so I can experience things I cannot otherwise, and so I can learn something from those experiences, not only be entertained by them. So, yes: I do spend emotional energy thinking about the books I read.

Girl by edna obrienAll of which is a very long introduction for the book I really want to write about, Girl by Edna O’Brien. It is nothing like American Dirt; it is a literary novel about a girl who was kidnapped by Boko Haram, written by an established Irish author who has written novels, essays, plays, poetry, and short stories, who Phillip Roth described as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”

But Girl is, in a way, like American Dirt, in that it is a white woman taking the lens of a brown woman in order to tell her story.

Who gets to tell stories?

I noticed this during the same time as the A. D. controversy, via a review by Ann Beattie. “This is Auden’s Icarus story, though it happens at eye level, right on planet Earth, while everyone’s looking.” Any book that evokes one of my favorite poems is likely a book I will love. But the timing made me think: OK, if I struggle with an American woman writing about the Mexican immigrant experience, can I trust an Irish woman writing about the African experience?

So I confess: I read the acknowledgement at the back of the book before reading the story. It let me know that the author did a huge amount of research, talking to the girls themselves who were kidnapped. I didn’t get a sense of her wanting to sensationalize the experience, but to provide a platform for those girl’s voices. I also felt like I had to trust her, because the awfulness of the experience could become overwhelming. The acknowledgement and this interview on NPR helped me to trust O’Brien’s motivations: not exploiting someone else’s tragedy, but putting their experiences out in the world so we could also carry them.

Girl is narrated by a young Nigerian girl who is kidnapped from her school by Boko Haram. In their camp, she suffers many atrocities. I had to read this section in small sips rather than fast gulps. Nothing is described in excruciating detail, but as a woman reader I could imagine without the details. More, I read it slowly because it felt like a way of honoring those sufferers of atrocities; breezing through would’ve made it mean less. She ends up being given as a wife to one of the soldiers, who is not awful to her. She has a baby with her husband and, when a military strike occurs one night, she escapes (with the help of her husband) with her baby and another girl.

The stories of her experience in the camp are only the first third of the book. The rest of the story is about her survival: her long trek through the jungle and, perhaps most traumatic, her return to her home and society. Some people fear her: “to them I am not a girl, I am not even a person, I am the portent of death, I am a decoy, sent to create a distraction before an attack.” Some can’t seem to see her, as if looking past her existence takes away the fact of her experiences. Her mother and aunt can’t seem to see her as anything other than a “bush wife”; she isn’t seen as a victim so much as a now-defective person.

In essence, this is not only a story about the narrator’s difficult experiences, but how they change her. How she learns to love and trust again, and what in this desolate world can bring her beauty and peace.

This was not an easy book, and it is not for everyone. But it was so well-written and moving, I am grateful I read it. The narrator will stay with me for many years.


Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men...In Sula I wanted to explore the consequences of what that escape might be, on not only a conventional black society, but on female friendship.   ~Toni Morrison

Some books are only stories. There isn't a degradation meant by the word "only," because any given book can be only a story to one person and a work that changes everything, or changes one small thing in a way that reflects upon everything, to another person. It's not necessarily the work itself (although it also is; I don't, for example, read many bodice rippers but I have a hard time imagining that many of them are more than only stories) but what we bring to it, what our psyches need, what our histories are complicated by, what our presents are demanding. You find a truth about yourself in books that are more than only stories, and you leave something of yourself there, too.

SulaI first read Toni Morrison's novel Sula when I was working on my English degree at BYU. I don't remember, now, exactly what class it was for, but I read it out of my Norton Anthology of American Literature rather than a regular book. What I do remember most vividly: Eva taking care of baby Plum in the outhouse, her finger coated with the last of the lard. I remember reading that and feeling astounded and terrified, because I wasn't sure I could ever do what she did. But other images also stayed with me: Eva and Nel traveling south until there are no more bathrooms for Black people and Eva's humiliation and gradual acceptance of squatting in the fields by the train stations. Eva's one lovely leg in its elegant shoe.  Shadrack in the military hospital and the way he leaves, his circuitous path through the grass, and the way he finds his way back to some version of himself that can at least exist in the world with useful hands. And, most profoundly, I remember the feeling of Nel and Sula's friendship.

Whenever someone asks me about Toni Morrison, I always recommend Sula as a good introduction to her work and as a sort of epistle on friendship. It isn't a syrupy, Hallmark-movie kind of friendship, but a real one, with both difficulties and connections.

What did I bring to this work then, the first time I read it? I was in the middle of my twenties, having gotten married far too young after a traumatic and tumultuous adolescence. I had embedded myself deep in the religion I had earlier rebelled against and I was trying to fit in that mold. I was also aspiring to be the best mother I could. Except, deep down, I knew I did not fit. I loved being a mom, I loved my children as babies and as toddlers, I loved that my life had brought me a husband and a house and these new beings. But always there was a tug, a sadness, a feeling that I had missed something. I couldn't name it then—I can name it now, but only painfully because I cannot get it back. I was propelled, in ways I am only now beginning to understand, by a compulsion to prove I was good after all of those years of rebelling, to my mother, to God, maybe even to myself. My aspirations—to go to college, to get a PhD, to become a writer and a professor—didn't fit in the definition of "good Mormon woman" and so I muted them until the opportunity to follow those dreams ended out of the sheer, relentless pace of time and circumstances and how my life changed, and how my life changed me.

That is what I brought to Sula when I first read it, and so I think I could only allow myself to see the friendship part of it. And it is about friendship, as evidenced partly by Sula's dying realization that she wanted to tell Nel about her own death, and about Nel's realization that she had been missing Sula all along. Despite the damage they did to each other, they still have their connection. That is what I took from the novel, what I kept with me during the twenty-five years that came after I read it: in the end, your real friends always love you, even if the friendship itself is too fractured to be visible as a friendship.

When Toni Morrison died this year, I decided I would reread Sula​, and somehow I thought that my flight to Denver would be a great time to start it. The couple next to me would likely disagree, as while I did manage to do it quietly, this rereading broke something in me that caused a huge lump to swell in my throat and a whole river of tears to fall onto the pages. It was a devastating, painful book to read at this point in my life, where I am striving to see what is real and to not blind myself out of fear. I am bringing an entirely different self to this reading.

Sure: this is a novel about friendship. But what I can relate to now, as a person nearing 50 who feels like she only has one more chance to create a life without that sadness and sense of loss, is entirely different. What hit me most profoundly was Eva's relationship with her son Plum, and how she kills him, and why. This is because what I saw on this reading is the subtle thread of commentary on relationships between mothers and their adult children. It is there in the scene with Eva and Plum, when she has been entirely drained of her ability to offer him refuge and it is there in the explanation for why Jude marries Nel: to have a place for comfort. "He needed some of his appetites filled, some posture of adulthood recognized, but mostly he wanted someone to care about his hurt…And if he were to be a man, that someone could no longer be his mother."  How do mothers and adult sons interact? What do mothers continue to give their adult sons? How do we make a place for them in the world when they are struggling to make it on their own? How do we let go? (Mirrored in the letting-go of Chicken Little's hands by Sula.)

This isn't a major theme in the novel, but it is part of what caused my throat to swell, because it is a part of a larger theme I didn't see (or couldn't) the first time I read it. In a sense, Sula and Nel stand as symbols for two choices women can make: Nel's traditional choice, Sula's "outlaw woman" choice. And while neither character is exactly me (nor do I need them to be), I find pieces of myself in both of them. In a sense, I am Nel, doing the traditional (and, in my religion, the expected) thing of getting married and having and raising children. Like Nel, I have found happiness in these choices. But I also have some of Sula in me. Maybe it is, in fact, the Sula part that has been the kernel of the unhappiness I've also felt. That I didn't choose to be an outlaw woman.

Early in the novel, we read that Nel's mother works hard to strip all of the imagination from her daughter, so that she can neatly conform. When she becomes friends with Sula, though—that choice of becoming friends itself an act of rebellion—she gets back some of her creativity, her wildness, but it doesn't seem that she ever pushes back against following the norm. She just marries Jude and has his children, and it isn't until Nel sleeps with him that she fully sees her life had joy in it. Sula cannot see it; she doesn't really even understand why her having sex with Jude is upsetting to Nel. "The narrower their lives, the wider their hips," she thinks. "Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people skinned dreams and bony regrets…had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles."

As I read this, I pictured my 25-year-old self, who thought she could have everything she wanted. Who thought she could be both Nel and Sula, traditional and outlaw. As in a photo collage, I also saw myself now, nearing fifty, feeling like I didn't succeed at anything: the outlaw tug kept me from being a good-enough mother (and without a doubt a good-enough Mormon) and the traditional place I put myself kept me forever away from my outlaw self. Has my life been narrow? Has all my sweetness been sucked away?

My outlaw self says yes.

My Nel self remembers and knows there has been joy here.

But like Nel at the end, lamenting—that fine cry that had "no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow," there isn't an answer. There isn't a black-and-white, clear-cut thing I can take from this novel. Nor from my life and where I find myself in it now. I am learning to embrace and comfort my Nel self and I am also feeling a turning toward my Sula self, who I have pretended didn't exist for far too long.

In the edition I purchased, there is a foreword by Toni Morrison, in which she writes that

Hannah, Nel, Eva, Susla were points of a cross, each one a choice for characters bound by gender and race. The nexus of that cross would be a merging of responsibility and liberty difficult to reach, a battle among women who are understood to be least able to win it…and the only possible triumph was that of the imagination.

 (I know I am not even discussing here the issues of race, know I am in some sense conscripting a Black story into my white one and that that is objectionable, but what I have written is what I can bring to it today.)

I went back and reread the foreword after I had finished the novel. And I felt my Sula self stir. I am Nel, laughing with her children, in love with her husband in both complicated and simple ways, walking down the busy road to visit Eva. I am the Nel who is troubled and influenced by Sula. But I also want to be Sula. Not the Sula who ruins friendships by failing to understand marriage, but the Sula who tells her mother "I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself."

I want to make myself, too.


Oh, Please, Gerald. Sit Down. You're Not That Important.

Yesterday I stood in a long line at my local bakery, because I was craving sugar cookies and if I just buy a dozen at the bakery, I don't bake three or four dozen myself, spend hours frosting them, and then eat them all.

I didn't mind the wait, as I had enough time before I needed to get to work and besides, I was standing in a line while the scent of baking bread and cinnamon rolls wafted around me. What's the problem? But eventually I was almost to the front, with just one woman in front of me. She was older—in her 70s—and was ordering 10 dozen rolls for an upcoming family party.

Just as she was getting her credit card out of her wallet, an older man banged open the door to the bakery (no small feat as those doors are heavy) and barged past all the women waiting in line. (Seriously odd side note, the line really was made only of women.)

He got to the cash registers and started yelling at his wife.

The other cash register opened up so I walked around him and started my order, all while watching this unfold.

"You shouldn't even come to a place like this that doesn't value your time, Marjorie!" he shouted.

"I need…a dozen…ummmm, oh yeah, a dozen sugar cookies," I told my cashier.

"I've been sitting around waiting in the car for you for FIFTEEN MINUTES," he continued yelling.

"And, ummmmm, a bowl of corn chowder to go," I continued.

"This place is ridiculous! There should be people walking down the line taking orders!" The yelling did not dissipate. Such volume from an old man.

"And a cheese stick," I finished.

I watched that woman. She very calmly took back her card. She said "Gerald, I'll be done in a minute, go wait in the car."

He stormed out, bumping shoulders with several of the women waiting in line.

She sighed and apologized to her cashier, then stopped to admire the shelves of kitchen items for sale (doesn't your bakery also have pretty dishes and holiday tchotchkes to buy?) before pushing open the heavy door and going out.

Everyone left in the line just kind of looked at each other with that look. That thing that all women recognize and have experienced in our lives we had all just witnessed happening to someone else. We all felt it, pity for the woman being stuck with such a man, and anger that he treated her like that, and also some pride at how she reacted.

The cashier handed me my bag o' carbs and I walked out into the parking lot…where Marjorie and Gerald were still fighting. In fact, they were parked right next to me. Gerald was in the driver's seat (OF COURSE HE WAS) and Marjorie was standing by the open passenger door. I stood behind her because I couldn't get into my car and listened to them shout.

Gerald went on and on about how he'd been sitting waiting in this car for so long and Marjorie was trying to explain that there was a line and that's how lines work, but Gerald kept cutting her off because HE HAD TO WAIT and what kind of incompetent business was this, that had A LINE (at noon!) and if HE was in charge it would never be like that.

But then I was getting close to really needing to leave so I could be on time to work instead of witnessing such domestic bliss. So I touched Marjorie on her shoulder in a way that I hope conveyed my "your husband is a jerk and is behaving like a big baby and I got your back, sis, I'd jump in and defend you but that might make it worse" feeling.

She got in the car, but before she closed the door I said "Gerald! You're not the most important person!" and then I got into my own car.

❦ ❦ ❦

I can't stop thinking about this interaction.

It is one example of why, despite all of the women who are complicit in their own undermining who insist we don't need feminism anymore, we still need feminism.

Why the patriarchy is poisonous.

Perhaps the fact that it was all women in the line (and in the bakery) witnessing his temper tantrum illuminates this contrast so starkly. He wasn't only being a jerk. He was illustrating how men in power behave.

Gerald is a person, of course, but he is also a type. An archetype, almost. He is an example of a man who thinks he is the most important person. His time (sitting in the Buick in the parking lot) was far more important than his wife's, which she was spending in a type of work—one of the many little details of planning a family get-together. He, of course, would never see that as work, because it doesn't result in any money in his pocket, and so is, in a sense, invisible.

See the power imbalance there?

And the fact that he had no problem storming the bakery and shouting at her in front of 25 people also speaks to his sense of self-importance. It didn't just impact his wife. It impacted, in some degree or other, everyone who witnessed it. (And now in a smaller way it is impacting whoever reads this blog post I'm writing.) Maybe someone in that line is divorcing an emotionally abusive husband right now and she went home shaken. Maybe one of the bakers frosting cookies revisited the trauma of her step-father shouting at her. Who knows, but he didn't think about anything other than HIS time. That was the most important thing.

Men are in charge of the world because they are powerful and strong, right? Because they are the gender that can handle the work and make the wise decisions or whatever the patriarchy tells itself.

But that display—that was not a display of strength or intelligence. It was a man throwing a temper tantrum because he had to wait.

We need feminism because Gerald's show yesterday at the bakery is not an isolated incident. From my own life I can tell a thousand stories of adult men acting like children. I saw it in the faces of the other women in the bakery—they've all seen this, too. We've all experienced it in some form or another. We can turn on the news and watch politicians and movie stars doing the same thing.

And especially in this Mormon community, where whatever lip service is paid to "admiring women," the basic truth is that women are always second to men—especially here. We still need feminism because there is still a power imbalance.

And if we ever manage something that looks like equality, we will still need feminism to make sure the balance is sustained.

As awkward as it was, I actually feel lucky that I got to witness Marjorie and Gerald's argument. It validated some things I have been pushing against in my own life. It gave me a little bit of courage to keep pushing. I was so proud that Marjorie didn't scurry. She finished her transaction AND she stopped to look at the dishes before pushing once more into the fray.

I only wish I had made sure that Gerald could hear me, because really: He isn't the most important. None of us are, and that is one of the points of equality.