Tale and Testament

What I read

Before I read Margaret Atwood’s recently published sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought maybe a second reading of the first was in order–especially since it had been thirty-some years since I’d read it. (I haven’t watched the television series because, well, you know … books.) I remembered how I felt after reading Handmaid’s Tale more than I remembered the plot. Of course, the visual of Offred’s dress and the handmaid’s role in Gilead stuck, as did main character’s near escape early in the novel. But I knew the intervening decades had softened my reaction to the novel and that a dive back into Offred’s dystopian world was in order before reading The Testaments.

The book has held up well, my friend, which is a pretty devastating thing to write. Our current political and social climate seem to put women at-risk for a Gilead-like scenario even more than thirty-five years ago.

The Testaments, is more back story than sequel. (We don’t explicitly find out what happened to Offred as one might expect in a sequel–but the savvy reader is sure to get enough hints to satisfy.) Even more accurately, perhaps, it’s a story that spins off Offred’s. The novel is told through the recovered testimonies of 369A and Aunt Lydia. Through 369A’s record, we learn about the daily lives of girls and women in Gilead–their marriages, education, and relationships with each other. And we also get the perspective of the Aunts and their role and unique position of power, especially the much-hated Aunt Lydia from Handmaid’s Tale. Both accounts also allow the reader to get a glimpse of how the underground Mayday organization operated.

Atwood’s handling of the sequel is masterful. In learning those back stories, we understand, rather than condemn. Even more chilling, readers might see themselves in the characters’ motives, choices, and reactions.

And while you might choose to deny it, Atwood seems to imply that the Aunts might be us.

What I lived

My then-husband bought me The Handmaid’s Tale –I don’t think he had any idea what it was about–for some celebratory day or another. Christmas. Or maybe my birthday. In 1985 had just started reading Ms. magazine on the sly. I was a stay-at-home mom without a college education who didn’t have a credit card to her name or any independent income. We were Evangelical Christians and, for me, life was starting to chaff.

A couple years later the shit hit the fan and life was never the same.

I’d like to think that I’d have enough inner resources now to resist any Gilead wool pulled over my eyes. I’m resilient. Educated. Independent. But the past several years make me doubt myself. The Old White Men in charge are pernicious in their policies for and attitudes about women. If you can say, ‘Grab them by the pussy’ and ‘Brett Kavanaugh’ in the same breath, how can you think otherwise?

And there are my own personal shortcomings. That longing to partner with The One. The dream of a fairy tale ending and happily-ever-after. A nasty little word called codependency. My self-zipped lips.

But then I remember–there is always hope. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

Educated: a memoir (review)

Educated: a memoir
Tara Westover
Random House (2018)

I used to try to get my high school students (at least once a year and usually when reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) to think about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Most seemed to think that they were receiving an education in their daily classes. My contention was that they were getting their schooling. How they interacted and applied the ideas they learned, what they did with the information–now that was education. Too many people stop at schooling and call it education. And to be successful, I’m pretty certain you need both.

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is as good as every review you might have read since its publication in February. The book was my book club’s December pick and while it made for great discussion I couldn’t help but wish that it was required reading for every young person. Because only after she got her schooling did Tara become educated–in knowledge and understanding, sure. But also in love and life and what it means to persevere.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father dealt scrap metal, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. An older brother called Shawn in the book (many first names were changed according to an introductory note) physically and verbally abused both of his sisters. Tara’s ‘homeschooling’ consisted of learning to read and basic arithmetic, but by the time she was seven or eight, she was working in the scrap yard or helping her mother bottle tinctures. Her father’s fear that government agents were always ready to strike meant that Tara had a to-go bag under her bed, ready to flee to the hills. She had nightmares about the Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge incident. Tara Westover was sometimes hungry. She was often lonely.

At an older brother’s urging, Tara began preparing her escape at age sixteen–her goal, at first, was simply to teach herself the content she would encounter on the ACT. After two tries, her scores were college ready and she was accepted to Brigham Young University.

She left. And to say her adjustment was difficult is an understatement.

Tara lived in an off campus with two other girls and had little idea that people didn’t leave rotting food and trash on the counters with dirty dishes; that people showered regularly; that when they did shower, they used soap. She also had huge gaps in her understanding of the world and its history. Thinking she would ask questions, joining class discussion like the other students, Tara asked a professor what the word ‘holocaust’ meant on a lecture slide. The silence in the lecture hall, as they say, was deafening. But seventeen-year-old Tara had never heard of the Jewish holocaust.

Tara Westover not only succeeded at BYU–she went on to earn her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. She is an articulate and intelligent and amazing woman (just check out the interview links below). But always, always in those first years away from the mountain, she was dogged by a feeling that she was undeserving. That she was fraud. A cloud of shame shadowed every success.

How does one come to terms with a past like that? By making peace? Or cutting ties to a destructive family? How does a young person learn her place the world when she doesn’t know basic life skills, let alone
history? Spoiler alert (but not really!): the secret is in education.


Check out these interview links with Tara Westover:

Fresh Air (38 min.) audio
AfterWord (1 hour) video

Virgil Wander: review

Virgil Wander
Leif Enger
Grove Atlantic Press (October 2018)

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander (yes, that’s the main character’s name) thinks his “world began reorganizing itself” the day a stranger, Rune Eliassen, turned up in town–but I’m pretty sure the sea change in Virgil’s life really began when he found himself launched off Highway 61 on a snowy autumn day, arcing over the guardrails and straight into Lake Superior. He doesn’t remember the accident, but he was told Marcus Jetty had been beach combing along the shore and managed to pull Virgil out before he sank to the bottom with his car.

Virgil’s memory is sketchy because he’s had a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s left him with a monster of a headache. Virgil has also lost his adjectives. He misreads faces. His motor skills are shaky. And months of his life are hazy at best, missing at worst. But lucky for Virgil, he lives in Greenstone, Minnesota, a hard-luck town whose residents are good-hearted and loyal, if not also a rag-tag of a bunch.

There is the town drunk Shad Pea who drowns when a sturgeon pulls him under one night and his young son Galen who vows to avenge his father’s death by catching the fish that killed him. There is the young widow Nadine, a tender and single-minded mother to her son Bjorn. Jerry Fandeen, a ne’er do well who straightens up and flies right–or so it seems until some explosives are involved–and his dynamo of a wife, Ann, who works with Virgil in the mayor’s office. A domesticated raccoon named Genghis who runs away and is the likely source of a rabies outbreak. And, of course, a villain–Adam Leer.  Rumored to have killed his older brother, he left town at sixteen. Little is known about the life of this Hollywood director who has now returned to live quietly in the empty family home.

A small-town story like this might even stand on its own, but Virgil Wander is all the richer for that stranger I mentioned. Rune is the long-lost father of one of  Virgil’s close friends, Alec Sandstrom, who disappeared over two decades ago. He flew a private plane out over the lake and never returned. Alec, a minor league pitcher for the Duluth-Superior Dukes had a wicked fast ball. He was also something of a cut-up–another small town eccentric–and his disappearance haunted his friends and family. There had even been some rumored Sandstrom sightings in Ontario. Northern California. Idaho. And now here is a father he never even knew. A Norwegian, in fact, traveling thousands of miles to gather stories about a son he never even knew he had.

Rune is also a kite maker and his fantastical kites are what draw Greenstonians to him. The kites are large and elaborate and seem to have a life of their own. There was a stained glass window. A cloudberry pie. A bicycle and a catfish and a fireplace “with a crooked brick chimney and flames of loose orange that flapped in the wind …” Because of Virgil’s brain injury, his doctor recommends he have someone stay with him for awhile, which Virgil dismisses until he almost burns down his apartment over  the Empress, a movie theater he owns and runs. So it is Rune who comes to live with Virgil, and while one of the men tries to remember pieces of his life, the other tries to piece together a life he had never known. As their friendship deepens, Virgil finds himself much different from “the previous tenant” who inhabited his life. And so he builds a new life for himself, one in which puts aside his aimlessness and searches for purpose. Connection. And love.

But ohmygoodness it is the language in the novel that makes me swoon. The narrator speaks in  an oddly formal manner that endears him to the reader and, at the same time, adds to the story a mythical tone. Here’s Virgil on recovering language after the accident:

Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups. I remember when sea-kindly showed up, a sentimental favorite, followed by desiccated and massive. Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt … this would be a good time to ask for your patience if I use an adjective too many now and then–even now, some years on, they’re still returning.

And this when Virgil warns his love that the accident has forever changed him:

“You know what you’re getting here, [Virgil] said. “I’m still fairly reduced. I may never be unabridged again.”

Of course the fact that the novel is set in a Great Lakes state with the sand dunes and gales off the lake and unpredictable storms I love–it’s all just too much. Much beauty. Much love. Much magic.


Here’s a video clip of Enger describing the novel.

Radio Girls: review

Radio Girls
Sarah-Jane Stratford
New American Library (2016)

radio girls

Every now and then when I was a teacher, I’d get a box of books donated to my classroom library. Maybe from a parent or another teacher or a community member. I have to admit I found this title in one such delivery, and I’m glad I brought it home. The novel Radio Girls gave me a peek into a world I knew nothing about: the early days of the BBC in 1928 and the pioneering women who worked there. While the story’s focus is the fictional Maisie Musgrave and her rather Mark the Match Boy rise in the world, I found the inner workings of the newly established British Broadcasting Corporation a more compelling story and the figure of Hilda Matheson (who was the dynamic head of Talks at the BBC) fascinating.

hilda matheson
image@nationalportraitgallery (London)

The first general manager of the BBC, John Reith, couldn’t decide whether to keep the left-leaning, open-minded Matheson on a short leash–or a long one. While he basked in the accolades the BBC received for Matheson’s programming decisions, he feared she was a communist too liberal and his conservative nature was offended by her affair with Vita Sackville-West. The relationship between Reith and Matheson was often a contentious one. Matheson, however, used her position as the Director of Talks to bring the public information conveyed in a more informal, conversational manner, and she featured the first on-air political debate, popular authors from Virginia Woolfe to H.G. Wells, and newly enfranchised women voters. Matheson’s position opened the way to hiring other single women in positions other than secretary. (The BBC under Reith maintained a policy of hiring women only if they were not married.) Add to her trailblazing at the BBC the fact that Hilda Matheson worked as an M15 operative during the Great War and the fact that she served as secretary to Britain’s first female parliamentarian Lady Nancy Astor and you’ve got quite an incredible individual.

In researching her life I discovered another book, a privately published (and so difficult to find) biography titled Stoker: The Life of Hilda Matheson. I think it would be well-worth the read. In any case, if you’d like to read about a pivotal time in the history of the BBC and English women, I don’t think Radio Girls will disappoint.

How is it I’d never heard of this incredible woman before now?

Ordinary Grace: review

Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger
Atria/Simon & Schuster

A born and raised Midwesterner, I am drawn to novels set in my part of the world. Ohio. Michigan. Wisconsin. Minnesota. There is something ordinary gracemagical about stepping into a world you know, of finding a story that captures the ethos of a place you love. When I turned to the blurb on William Kent Krueger’s novel Ordinary Grace, and read “Minnesota” and “1961” I knew it was a must-read.

The narrator of the story is thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, a pretty typical “PK” as we used to call them. Preacher’s Kid. He balked at authority, pushed limits, and tried to circumvent just about any punishment his parents meted out. His father, Pastor Nathan Drum, is a WWII vet who traded studying law for the ministry when he returned to the States. Frank’s mother Ruth was less than thrilled with the prospect of being a pastor’s wife and she shares Frank’s rebellious spirit. She smokes … on the porch, in clear view of everyone. She drinks martinis. And she’s not so sure about this God-thing her husband is all about. Ariel, Frank’s older sister, is an accomplished pianist and composer with great promise who is about to set off to Julliard.  Frank’s nine-year-old brother Jake is a quiet boy, in part because he lives with a stutter that makes speaking difficult.

The story begins with the death of one of Frank’s classmates, Bobby Cole. Daydreaming as he sat on the trestle over the Minnesota river, he was killed when he didn’t hear an oncoming train. Police officer Doyle suspects his death was not an accident–that maybe one of the homeless who lived by the river had something to do with Bobby’s death. Or maybe it was the Indian Warren Redstone, a Native man with a rap sheet. (His charge? Protesting for Indian rights.) His recent reappearance in town (by Doyle’s account anyways) could only mean trouble.

But Bobby’s death was just the beginning of an awful summer of loss. One that would both pull Frank away from his father’s faith and pull him closer. After Bobby’s death, the brothers discover one of those homeless men, dead by the river; Ariel’s mentor and close family friend Emil Brandt tries to commit suicide. And then comes the death that nearly destroys the Drum family.

Although I think it’s evident that Krueger loves us Midwesterners, he doesn’t shy away from uncovering our ugliness. Racial prejudice. Gender stereotypes. Abuse. Alcoholism. But he does so with understanding of our frailty–he looks at us honestly and without condemnation.

Krueger is able to do this, I think, with the cooperation of  Nathan Drum. We are privy to a couple of Nathan’s sermons in Ordinary Grace and we learn that his God is a God of love. A God who promises light over darkness, who gives us humans the grace to “endure our own dark night and rise to the dawning of a new day and rejoice.”  When Nathan learns that a young person in his life is gay, he reassures the young man he is a child of God–loved, not sick; made in God’s image, not a freak. It’s not what you’d expect of a rural pastor in Minnesota at the beginning of the sixties. But sometimes those of us in the Midwest even stereotype ourselves, and I’d venture a guess that Nathan’s view of the world was more common than we assume.

That’s what I love about reading novels written by authors in the Midwest. Our faith, our optimism, our love of family–and hot dish casseroles!–is not mocked or derided. Instead, our spirit is celebrated.