I’m tempted to just tell all of you that this book by Octavia Butler is even better than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and that you must read it and leave it at that. But I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t believe me, and given that Parable of the Talents is a sequel to Parable of the Sower, you’ll probably need a little more convincing if I’m suggesting that you read two books. Plus, y’all know I’m not likely to just make a suggestion and leave it at that. I like to pick apart my own opinions too much not to dig into why I liked this so much.
In Parable of the Sower, Butler told the story of Lauren Oya Olamina, a young woman who, in the midst of violent civil unrest in the year 2024, escaped her California home and walked north, gathering around her a community of friends and followers. As they walked together, Lauren sowed the seeds of a new religion that she called Earthseed. In Parable of the Talents, we learn what happened to the believers in Earthseed after they settled down and built a small community called Acorn.
The book is made up of writings from Lauren’s journal, as selected by her daughter many years later. Also included are brief excerpts of books by Lauren’s husband and her brother. Lauren’s daughter, who clearly has mixed feelings about her mother’s legacy, offers her own reflections on Lauren’s life and on Earthseed, her first and most beloved child.
Despite the dangers everyone faced in Butler’s version of the early 20th century, Lauren’s small Acorn community thrived in its early years. They’d planted fertile gardens, started a school, acquired a truck, and were making connections with neighbors. Earthseed rituals were being developed and passed along within the community. The world outside was in chaos, and the people of Acorn were always on alert, but they had an idyllic life. That is, until the election of President Donner of the Christian America party. A group calling themselves Donner’s Crusaders decided that the way to get the U.S. back on track was to round up those deemed a danger and reeducate them. Acorn, with its unconventional beliefs, was an obvious target.
I mentioned above that I thought this was a better book than The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s largely because I found Butler’s vision of an America under the leadership of an extreme right-wing Christian group to be far more convincing than Atwood’s. As much as I love Atwood’s book, I could never see the practices regarding women that are a way of life in her Gilead becoming the norm. Rampant sexism and subjugation of women, yes, but the sexual practices would, I think, be confined to smaller communities–whispered about in closets and basements, glossed over perhaps with an exchange of money to give the appearance of a sort of legitimate surrogacy that skipped the artificial insemination step.
Butler’s future is much closer to what I’d expect. The worst practices—the kidnapping of children, the lack of trials, the torture, the rape—are kept just far enough from public view. The victims are just far enough out of the mainstream that no one will miss them, and if they do break free and share their story, no one will believe them. Here, Lauren reflects on the possible public response to Acorn’s plight:
There are plenty of people who would think the Church was doing something generous and necessary—teaching deadbeats to work and be good Christians. No one would see a problem until the camps were a lot bigger and the people in them weren’t just drifters and squatters. As far as we of Earthseed are concerned, that’s already happened, but who are we? Just weird cultists who practice strange rites, so no doubt there are nice, ordinary people who would be glad to see us taught to behave ourselves too.
How many people, I wonder, can be penned up and tormented—reeducated—before it begins to matter to the majority of Americans? Do they know? Would they care? There are worse things happening here in the States and elsewhere, I know. There’s war, for instance.
This book was published in 1998. Before Guantanamo. Before the War on Terror.
Aside from the prescient social commentary, I was intrigued by the way Butler handles religion. Like Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s careful to show that Christianity as a whole is not necessarily the problem. There are Christian characters who are not part of the government, and some who are remain blind to the problem—in some cases, willfully blind.
Butler’s story, however, shows a deep ambivalence toward religion in general, as evidenced in Lauren’s daughter’s commentary on her mother’s journals. In Butler’s America, religion, especially Earthseed, can be a great force for good. Earthseed is what motivates Lauren to continually strive against her oppressors and to seek people to nurture and love. She wishes to be like the good servant in the biblical parable, who takes the talents he’s been given and uses them to gain more. But her daughter wonders whether her mother’s commitment to the cause kept them apart. If Lauren had converted to the faith of Christian America, she might have had a chance at a relationship with her daughter, but she did not. And if Lauren’s uncle had been less committed to Christian America, he might have built a bridge between mother and daughter, but he did not. The cause became greater than anything, even family love. The third servant in the biblical parable hid his talents in the ground, fearing that he would lose them, only to be condemned in the end. But for Lauren, spreading the talents brought condemnation from a different quarter. Was it worth it?
This is the fourth of Butler’s books that I’ve read and by far my favorite. I’m not sure that it’s her best. Some might find it preachy in a way that her other books aren’t, particularly when it comes to the subjugation of Acorn. I found the exploration of the effects of enslavement and torture on the enslaved and tortured to have value, however. And Butler’s handling of religion is challenging in the best of ways. But what grabbed me by the throat was the book’s relevance to today’s political scene. All my fears about the political climate came to fruition in this book. Yet I was left hopeful. The U.S. political system is easily manipulated, but there are correctives built into it. We the people are the corrective, and if we strive to be the best versions of ourselves, we have the power to change things.