Book Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Kathleen Grove
After reading the latest novel by Man Booker Prize winner and prolific author Margaret Atwood I know that the natural food movement has arrived! “The Year of the Flood” offers the reader a dystopian society in the future when all our worst tendencies, from genetically engineered plants and animals to overconsumption and overmedication, reach their logical conclusions.

The novel focuses first on an intriguing new religion, God’s Gardeners, a group led by Adam One, that advocates reverence for all living things and living off the land with a resultant Spartan and almost vegetarian lifestyle. (The members may eat meat if their lives depend upon it, and then they must give thanks to both the animal and God for its life.)

In a society flush with possessions and ostentatious acquisition, God’s Gardeners cultivate their own food organically in rooftop gardens, recycle and reuse their meager belongings and add to them through gleaning, and live lives that minimize their impact on God’s world. They raise their children, some of whom have joined families within the group after being exploited in the hedonistic and degenerate larger society, to respect and treasure nature. Children learn how to live off the land, from recognizing the palliative nature of some herbs to honoring the honeybee to skinning a rabbit.
Each section of the book begins with a prayer or a hymn, usually associated with a saint’s day, such as that of Saint Euell (remember Euell Gibbons?), Saint Dian (Dian Fossey) or Saint Rachel (Rachel Carson), and a sermon from Adam One about the significance of this day.

“Today we meditate upon Saint Euell Gibbons, who flourished upon this Earth from 1911 to 1975, so long ago but so close to us in our hearts. As a Boy, when his father left home to seek work, Saint Euell provided for his family through his Natural knowledge. He went to no high school but Yours, oh Lord. In Your Species he found his teachers, often strict but always true. . . . For the Waterless Flood is coming, in which all buying and selling will cease, and we will find ourselves thrown back upon our own resources, in the midst of God’s bounteous Garden.” (p. 125 & 126)

A few representative stanzas from the hymn:

When autumn comes, the Acorn’s ripe,
The Walnut black is too;
Young Milkweed pods are sweet when boiled,
and Milkweed shoots when new,
The inner bark of Spruce and Birch
For extra Vitamin C―
But do not take too much of each,
Or you will kill the tree.
The Purslane, Sorrel, Lamb’s Quarters,
And Nettles, too, are good;
The Hawthorn, Elder, Sumac, Rose―
Their berries wholesome food.

The group is preparing for the apocalypse (the “waterless flood”) when the world as they know it will come to an end, and only God’s Gardeners will be prepared to survive and restore the Earth to its rightful respect and reverence.

As with most novels in the science fiction genre, many unfamiliar creatures and organizations inhabit this world. Genetic engineering has produced liobams (lamb/lion combinations), pigs with advanced intelligence, rabbits of various bright colors, and Mo’Hair Sheep that grow human hair.

The scientific community struggles to come up with medicines to counteract the mutating viruses and bacteria and is reputed to be creating its own biological threats for the government. Institutions have also evolved, such as the Painballers, where criminals are sent to fight and eliminate one another in order to return to the streets; Secret Burger, a chain of meat products with the meat of unspecified origin; and the Anoo-Yoo Spa, where the customer can purchase “epidural enhancements” and “avoid gene errors.”

Interesting characters travel through this world, families experience dysfunction, and the Blooms and Buds School has its share of mean girls, bullies, and incipient romance. As you may have guessed, the Waterless Flood arrives, and without electricity and many other aspects of this highly technological world, most survivors are without resources, most especially the knowledge of plant cultivation and the skills to protect oneself from infection. Atwood suggests a surprising future.

For those of us in Rappahannock County committed to eating locally and reducing our carbon footprint, this book affirms our values. Atwood paints a horrific vision of a society of consumption, materialism, and artifice. Her much recognized skill as a writer kept me engaged throughout the more than 400 pages of narrative, sermons, and hymns. Once a voracious reader of science fiction, I enjoyed a return to this genre with a clear philosophical agenda underlying the plot. “The Year of the Flood” offers both a good read and food for thought (pun intended) for vacation, whether in the mountains or at the beach.

“The Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood, 2009; Doubleday, New York. ISBN:978-0-385-52877-1.

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