When I first read The Handmaids Tale in 1987 I didn’t know who Margaret Atwood was or that the novel was already two years old. I thought I’d just discovered the most amazing new book by some woman I hoped would write more stories. At twenty-seven years old I just was just awakening to some of the feminist concepts explored in Atwood’s speculative novel. I was humbled by the ignorance of my youth when I went to the library and learned The Handmaids Tale was her sixth novel among almost 30 published works.
“Oh, she already is famous” I remembered thinking. But learning I was late to the party didn’t stop me from digging into Atwood’s literary past with pleasure. Hers were the first short stories I’d read outside of school and in addition to being my favorite novelist, she is the author of my favorite poem. The favorite – in part – because I can always remember it. The title is “You Fit Into Me” and the message is deadly: You fit into me/like a hook into an eye. A fish hook/An open eye.
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1939. As a child she spent six months of every year in the wilderness of northern Ontario. Her father was an entomologist and the entire family joined him when he worked in the “bush.” These experiences would shape her life and much of her work. Some of what she must have learned during her time in the backcountry can particularly be seen in her novel Surfacing.
Atwood graduated from the University of Toronto, earned a master’s degree at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts and completed additional studies at Harvard University. But what’s more impressive than her education is her body of work. Atwood began writing at the age of six and, judging by the fifty-some awards her writing has garnered, it was a good decision. The list of her novels includes The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), and The Penelopiad (2005).
Atwood has not only contributed prize-winning and thought-provoking work in the genre of fiction, but in non-fiction, poetry and children’s literature as well. She is also a visual artist; her mediums are photography and watercolor.
The protagonists in Atwood’s novels are typically women, and her books explore themes of survival – as in surviving in a man’s world, surviving the barb’s women can throw at one another or surviving the challenges we heap upon ourselves. Atwood’s novels often explore alternative perspectives, such as The Robber Bride that delves into the lives of Roz, Tony and Charis as they connect to a central antagonist named Zenia. The Penelopiad also experiments with perspective as readers hear the “other side” of Homer’s classic work as they read Penelope’s take on what it was like to wait at home while her husband sailed through nearly endless adventure.
Atwood brings to the art of writing a wry wit and a willingness to expose the best and worst sides of her heroines. While many of her novels do express themes related to the second wave of feminism, they are not meant to be polarizing. Rather, Atwood’s adept style pulls back the curtains labeled “victim” and “perpetrator” to offer a different perspective – one without preconceived notions of who’s wrong and who’s right.