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Margaret Atwood attracts Halifax crowd to hear about Handmaid's Tale sequel

Margaret Atwood and fellow author Alexander MacLeod discuss Atwood’s new book The Testaments at the Halifax Central Library on Thursday night. Atwood was in Halifax as part of the national tour for the novel, which is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald
Margaret Atwood and fellow author Alexander MacLeod discuss Atwood’s new book The Testaments at the Halifax Central Library on Thursday night. Atwood was in Halifax as part of the national tour for the novel, which is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. - Ryan Taplin

Celebrated author featured at Central Library event for new novel

HALIFAX, N.S. —

Nova Scotia figured almost as prominently as Gilead during Thursday night’s Halifax stop on Margaret Atwood’s book tour.

“Welcome readers and relatives,” Atwood said at the Central LIbrary as she prepared to read from the opening chapter of her latest novel, The Testaments.

“Since 23andMe, I’ve got even more relatives than I thought I had, and I knew I had a lot,” quipped Atwood, who noted that the families of both her parents were from the province.

“That’s why I have all these relatives in the audience, too.”

The 79-year-old Toronto author is on the road to promote The Testaments, the just-published sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s dark vision of an anti-woman, environmental disaster of a future in which the few fertile females are forced to procreate for the ruling elite was recently adapted into a popular TV series, fanning anticipation for another chapter of the dystopian tale in book form.

 The Testaments further develops the stories of the handmaid Offred and Aunt Lydia, who wields brutal control over the younger women.

“You’ll be delighted to know that if you actually make it to the end of the book, there are some Nova Scotia locales in it because that, of course, would be one of the destinations if you were escaping by sea. Not to give away any spoilers. I’m giving you some motivation to keep slogging on through the book.”

Though likely known to most readers for her 16 novels, since 1961 Atwood has also published 17 poetry books, 10 non-fiction books, eight short-fiction collections and eight children's books, not to mention a graphic novel. But it stands to reason that her books about the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, which was once bucolic New England, will be her most impactful works.

Praised for prescience

The Handmaid’s Tale has reportedly sold some eight million copies in English, and it was made into a feature film in 1990 and an opera in 2000. The novel won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. 

It’s also crossed over from fiction to the real world, with people dressed in the handmaids’ distinctive long red dresses and white caps often showing up at political protests. In response to a question from moderator Alexander MacLeod, Atwood said such things are out of the hands of authors.

“It has happened to other characters from other books. So, every Christmas, there’s going to be an ad featuring Scrooge. ‘Scrooge says get a deal.’ And we all know who that person is. This is not what Charles Dickens intended when he wrote the book,” she said.

“Some characters just escape from their books and they take on other lives.”

Following the election of Donald Trump in the United States, which has careened toward rolling back advances in women’s rights and environmental protections, Atwood was praised for the prescient warnings in her work. It’s happened before.

Her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth came out just as the global financial meltdown was getting into gear in 2008.

“Everybody thought I knew something,” said Atwood, making spooky hand gestures and faces.

“A hundred years ago I’d be burned at the stake.”

There didn’t appear to be any enterprising hawkers outside the library, so someone missed a rare chance to write their own ticket at a literary event. That’s because demand far exceeded supply for the 400 free seats to see Atwood. All the spots were claimed quickly when they were made available online, and the library put a livestream of the event on its website.

Atwood’s Testaments tour is scheduled to continue with a stop Friday night in Charlottetown.

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