I have a habit, after reading a book, of going onto GoodReads, cataloguing that I’ve finished the book, and reading a few reviews by other users. This activity is entirely voyeuristic as I never contribute my own thoughts to these conversations, but instead get riled up at reviews that I disagree with - very productive. After finishing Future Home of the Living God (published last November) and Red Clocks (published last January), I was met with a very similar trend in the reviews that I read: “these books are trying to be The Handmaid’s Tale (published three decades ago) and failing.”
This sentiment is irrelevant and counterproductive. On one hand, a cynic sees the success of the Hulu series and the rise of the #metoo movement and assumes other writers want to capitalize on the moment with similar books about terrifying restrictions on women’s rights. On the other hand, having read each of these books, I think writing off Zumas’s and Erdrich’s works as knock-offs dismisses the unique voices that each of their books have.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986. Its warnings are frighteningly prescient, like George Orwell’s 1984, as they foretell the dangers of technology and automation, censorship, and fake news. Not to mention the terrifying consequences of placing severe constrictions on women’s bodies and relegating each woman to a class defined by a single, traditionally feminine trait, like childbearing or domestic duties. The action of the book takes place in a society that has been completely transformed. The president and other government officials have been murdered, schools and universities have been repurposed as Handmaid training facilities and execution sites, and women have been given uniforms based on their specific function in society. A new infrastructure has been put in place. When the book opens, we are at least three years into a new regime.
By contrast, Future Home of the Living God and Red Clocks take place right at the cusp of similar societal changes.
Louise Erdrich begins Future Home of the Living God in a time of great evolutionary confusion. Evolution has stopped and perhaps begun to move backward under the premise that we have reached the pinnacle of our evolution and are mutating in retrograde. While Erdrich’s book features a similar rounding up of women, specifically pregnant women, her protagonist is quite different than Atwood’s Offred. Cedar is happily pregnant and sees her world as full of possibilities. Unlike Offred, whose family has been ripped from her, Cedar’s family is still contained within her. Much of this book could be considered philosophical rumination. Cedar is a Native woman who was adopted by a white family as a baby, and as she becomes a mother she works to understand the role that both of her mothers have played in her life. While the evolutionary crisis is looming, always in the frame, Future Home of the Living God is more concerned with whether family and motherhood can survive in a society that has begun to force specific definitions and restrictions on what those words mean.
In Red Clocks, Leni Zumas imagines a world in which abortion and in vitro fertilization have been outlawed, and a new law, soon to take effect, will prohibit single people adopting children. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, there are no training centers or execution sites. Women have not been rounded up, but a Pink Wall has been erected between the United States and Canada, and any woman trying to cross to have an abortion is detained and sent to jail. Zumas tells the story of this America through the perspective of five different women. Ro is a single, forty-something school teacher who desperately wants to have a child. She is writing the autobiography of Eivør, a 19th century polar explorer whose journal entries are interspersed throughout the narrative. Mattie is a pregnant teenager; Susan is a mother of two in an unhappy marriage, and Gin is an herbalist and healer, or mender, who lives in the forest and avoids society. This cohort of women with very different definitions of family, womanhood, and freedom, synthesize in tragic and beautiful ways, demonstrating the importance of listening to others’ pain and triumph, and making space for all kinds of women, mothers, and families in society.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to celebrate the distinct voices of these three authors. While Atwood’s masterpiece has certainly influenced both Erdrich and Zumas, each woman has something unique to say about femininity, motherhood, and society: listen to each other, build each other up. Women united and demanding to be heard are powerful, and deserve to be respected and celebrated. If we tear each other down, prescribing only one definition of womanhood and motherhood, we lose the freedom we crave and the diversity that makes our society beautiful.