Margaret Atwood at First Parish Church | October 25


Harvard Yard is probably one of the last places on earth where you'd expect to stumble upon the corpses of women who'd been unjustly hung during public executions. That is, unless you happen to inhabit the world created by Booker Prize-winning Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood in her 1985 dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid's Tale, which is eerily set in a futuristic replica of Cambridge controlled by a totalitarian theocracy.

The 69-year-old Atwood returned to Harvard, the site of her unfinished graduate studies and what she referenced as four years of her "misspent youth," and spoke at First Parish on Sunday night. "I kind of like to set disaster novels, more or less ... here," she told her audience, smirking slyly. Atwood made her way to the hallowed grounds as part of a lengthy tour for her newest work, The Year of the Flood. Building upon a parallel story laid out in 2003's Oryx and Crake, Flood is a dystopian forecast in which a virulent disease -- a "waterless flood" -- has destroyed nearly all human life. The novel follows the post-apocalyptic journey of Toby and Ren, once members of a hippied-out, vegetarian religious group called God's Gardeners, as they struggle to survive and reach out for any remaining human existence.

Atwood read from three separate passages: the first narrated by Toby shortly after the "flood" hits; the second told by Ren, who reflects on her life prior to the flood; and the third a speech by Adam One, the leader of God's Gardeners. Each excerpt revealed more distinctly than the last that the earth roamed by Atwood's characters is (at first glance) very different from our own. The CorpSeCorps -- an all-pervasive private security force -- have outlawed firearms but sponsor a flourishing and appalling sex trade; the privileged elite live in gated Compounds, while the lower-class "Pleebs" are relegated to communities with nicknames like "the Sewage Lagoon"; genetic engineers have created transgenic pigs with human brains, meat shrubs that sprout "ChickieNobs," moths with baby faces, and skin-color transplants.

But on Sunday evening, Atwood proved how well she is able to couple her penchant for the weird, gloomy, and fantastical with a devotion to reality. Take the hymns of the God's Gardeners, for instance -- they've actually been written by composer Orville Stoeber and made into an entire album, a sampling of which Atwood proudly played for her audience. She even went so far as to sing, grinningly, one of the tunes herself. The proceeds reaped from the ticket sales of the book tour will be given to environmental organizations of Atwood's choosing. And during the Q&A session, the bright-eyed, wild-haired Atwood was able to link deftly the disaster zone she wrote about in The Year of the Flood with the ecological and biological terrors that menace our existence today.

At the beginning of the evening, she explained that it is impossible for her to write a piece of fiction without aspects of her creations occurring in reality simultaneously. "There is, in fact, an urban beekeeping movement happening now," she said, referencing the rooftop gardening and beekeeping that takes place both in the novel and in the real world. Atwood's eerie ability to warn us of the darker potentials for our world -- like famine and biological and chemical warfare -- is met by a hopeful sense of humor and faith in her readers. If she is a literary oracle, she's letting us know we've still got some time to make things right.

"This is an optimistic book," she told the crowd. "Why? It's a book! It's in there. Keep it in there."

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