Three Rivers

The most recent season of The Handmaid’s Tale—the astonishing Hulu series that began as an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood—begins by gesturing to what nineteenth-century readers experienced as their own most thrilling, dystopian, and socially pressing fictional moment.

In the season opener, handmaid Emily grips baby Nicole while crossing what must be the St. Lawrence River as she attempts to escape Gilead into Canada (the latter remains unabsorbed into the fundamentalist patriarchy that has consumed the former United States). It’s winter, and Emily and Nicole descend into icy waters, only to miraculously emerge on the Canadian shore. Breathless and almost frozen, they are met by Canadian border authorities who wrap the two in solar blankets as they repeat the question “Are you seeking asylum?”

Readers of nineteenth-century novels cannot watch the sequence without thinking of a similarly climactic sequence in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which American readers first experienced in serial form in the weekly newspaper The National Era before Stowe published the complete novel in 1852. (Serialized novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin were the nineteenth century’s equivalent of cable drama, delivering the same ongoing, addictive, psychologically bonding experience of long-form narrative.) The formerly enslaved Eliza, now a fugitive determined to liberate her baby daughter, leaps between cakes of ice as she makes the death-defying passage across the Ohio River. “Her shoes are gone—her stockings cut from her feet,” Stowe writes, “while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.”

And as of last week, one cannot consider either sequence without thinking of the photograph published in the New York Times of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his two-year-old daughter, Angie Valeria, floating dead in the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas. As in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Handmaid’s Tale, refugees at the southern border are attempting harrowing passages for the sake of children—in order to evacuate children from circumstances that would otherwise eat them alive.

Taken together, these three scenes, in which adults and children enter rivers that are also barriers separating them from the prospect of escaping lives of tribulation, suggests a certain triangulation. Aside from those rivers, what is the connection between nineteenth-century emancipation, the border and its causalities, and misogyny? A secret Facebook group uncovered last week by journalists at ProPublica associates at least two of the three issues. Set up by border agents as a kind of message board for about 1800 immigration authorities, the group featured posts mocking the photograph of father and daughter in the Rio Grande along with memes depicting Donald Trump raping Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Thus, it would seem that many of those agents discern some connection between the thwarting of river crossings and the desire to rape feminist legislators. And it bears pointing out that there is historical amnesia behind their Trumpian hatred of the migrants. Certainly none of them recalls that the dysfunctional societies migrants are fleeing were destabilized by American policy during the Cold War. For that matter, it seems none of them understands that the border itself is a result of America’s invasion and annexation of a sovereign country, another nineteenth-century trauma.

The Handmaid’s Tale elicits a similar form of amnesia regarding the nineteenth century via the misogyny of Gilead. Episode six of this season has the protagonist, June, visiting Washington, where she is confronted with a desecrated Lincoln Memorial. Daniel Chester French’s statute of Lincoln has been decapitated by the armies of Gilead, his words from the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address chipped from the walls of the temple. It is as if the patriarchs who run Gilead also understand that the principles of nineteenth-century emancipation, taken to their fullest implications, would make patriarchy impossible. So Lincoln is to be erased, forgotten.

It is remarkable that in the real Washington, there is no memorial to the victims of U.S. slavery. It is remarkable that the annexation of Texas, the southwest, and most of the west coast is generally not discussed in America outside of academia. And it is a remarkable fact that today, throughout that region, the volunteers caring for asylum seekers are mostly women. Perhaps their transformative power motivates the border agents’ rape fantasies. After all, the current season of The Handmaid’s Tale, with its not-so-oblique reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Civil War Lincoln claimed Stowe’s novel sparked, seems to be developing a new plotline. Maybe even in Gilead, emancipation is possible.

Christopher Hanlon

Photography (“Hobbling”) by Cyd Peroni