Reading from the Future

While discussing Parable of the Sower in our small groups this semester, Mary raised an interesting point. When we are reading this book, we are following the unfolding action as we read Lauren’s journal entries. This makes the reader sympathize with Lauren as we read to discover her fate. This is how most books work, we accompany a character along part of their journey. However, if we were to look at Lauren’s journal articles as an artifact, would our perspective change?

Though I’ve never read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve heard plenty about it during my Bible as Literature class last spring. The novel, like Sower, is also dystopian. Specifically, society has collapsed due to a religious regime which strips citizens of freedom and rights, especially women. Modern America is submerged into hopeless Old Testament turmoil. Yet, in the epilogue, it is revealed that the story is being studied by academics of a restored society as a primary source on cassette tapes. Again, having not read it I am unsure of how I would feel about this ending. I imagine that having the restored and more equal future as a destination and looking back on this imagined nightmare of a past makes the story a hopeful one. I imagine that this distance shows we are capable of making progress, and even a dystopia could not destroy humanity.

Our conversation then moved to a mutually loved work of historical fiction, The Book Thief. The narrator, a personification of Death, reveals the tragic fate of a small town before the reader even arrives there. Molching, a fictional German town, will be bombed and leave the book thief by herself as a survivor. Knowing the outcome prepares the reader for heartbreak. Yet when I read The Book Thief, I was still shocked and hurt when Liesel lost everything. Even if we are told to expect violence and death, and constantly reminded throughout the narrative that it is on the horizon, the structure of this story reveals that the ability of humans to destroy one another will still be shocking to us no matter what. This book is especially upsetting because the events aren’t an entirely imagined dystopia. They are based on our real history. Humans bombed other humans and continue to do so. Reading these narratives as artifacts can make us feel as if we are capable of making progress and leaving the worst of society in the past and traveling towards a better future. As Death laments, looping us back to Roach, “I am haunted by humans.” We imagine the worst is behind us, and hopefully these memories keep us from making a worse future.

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