Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale is one of my favorite books ever. I've read it many, many times and I always find new things to love about it. I also taught it several times back when I was running undergrad English and writing classes in graduate school. I think it's an astonishing book, not just for its powerful, uncanny vision of the not-so-distant future, but also for the beautiful, poetic ways that Atwood uses language. Indeed, language—how it is used, how it changes, who gets to use it, private versus public voices and vocabularies, and, to quote another great poetic work, "who lives, who dies, who tells your story"—is one of the main themes of the novel. Ugh, I just love this book. If you haven't read it, you really should, ESPECIALLY if you, like me, live in or around Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the book is set. Reading The Handmaid's Tale has been an even richer experience for me since moving to Cambridge. I can walk through Harvard Square and see glimpses of Atwood's Gilead superimposed upon the walls or ready to rise from beneath the surface of the streets, like the palimpsest that Atwood herself evokes on the first page of the novel.
For those looking to know more about why Atwood chose Cambridge and what it means for her in terms of The Handmaid's Tale, I highly recommend her essay "Writing Utopia," which I taught alongside the novel in my undergrad classes. Another thing I always meant to put together for my classes, but never got around to (UNTIL NOW!!), was a map of Cambridge that showed where the sites in the book are located (or at least, my best guesses based on textual clues). I think it would have made a fascinating field trip and would still make a great addition to anyone's literary tour of the area (more recommendations for related adventures to come at a later date). So, for anyone who's interested, here's what I was able to come up with based on my knowledge of the area and the oftentimes vague allusions in the text. If you have thoughts on or objections to any of the guesses I've made, please let me know! This is still a work in progress (I'm definitely using this as an excuse to reread the novel yet again to check my draft). One of the things I think this little project illustrates beautifully is how circumscribed the narrator's world is; her outings are her few glimpses of freedom, of the world, but she barely makes it a mile away from home at any time. It's also fascinating to imagine the sites in the novel coexisting with my neighborhood. It's different now than it was in the 1980s when Atwood was living and writing here, but perhaps now the resonances are even more startling, as our world creeps terrifyingly closer to the nightmare future Atwood was imagining. Fun stuff! I hope you'll enjoy all of these layers on your next trip to Our Fair City!