When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

In this imaginative retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hannah Payne awakens to find her skin is now the red — the color of blood. She is a convicted criminal sentenced by the State of Texas, who criminalized abortion as murder, to be “chromed”, and her skin color has been genetically modified to broadcast to the world her crime. Hannah devoted her life to church and family before her arrest, but her crime and her refusal to name both the father of her baby and the abortionist leads all but her father and her sister to turn their backs on her and earns Hannah the maximum sentence.

In this dystopian society, jails were considered too great a strain on society and closed so Hannah is to spend her sentence out in society where anyone can take one look at her and know her crime. Female reds are rare, but the world is filled with yellows, which indicate a misdemeanor offense, and blues — child molesters — are even rare with groups like The Fist around. This vigilant band to which her abusive brother-in-law belongs murders blues, yellows, reds, and greens while the rest of society turns a blind eye.

While Canada considers America’s program of “chroming” to be immoral, the religious fervor sweeping across America following the Scourge, an epidemic that left most of the world infertile and was blamed on female promiscuity, supports the program and pushes for laws that encouraging patriarchy and criminalize abortion. Reverend Aidan Dale, Hannah’s former pastor at the Chuck of the Ignited Word in Plano, is now the Secretary of Faith for the president and seen as the steward of America’s morality, but those familiar with Hawthorne’s original tale will know how impossible that is.

The confrontational nature of this book towards patriarchal understandings of religion, the criminalization of abortion, and the imposed Christian religiosity on the government and the American people is superbly done because of the way it is presented through Hannah’s eyes. This twenty-something woman has spent her entire life believing her only, God-sanction role in life is to become a wife and mother and waits for marriage under the authority of her parents. She does not spend the book raging against the confines of this society but rather seeing how much this society rages against her and, therefore, causing her to question her understanding of crime, punishment, and religion. Such a conflict — young adults contemplating the religion their parents have raised them — occurs on a smaller scale across the world and adds a realm of realism to this dystopian tale.

Having lived in Texas, I also found it well within the realm of possibility that the state would criminalize abortion, if given the chance, and pass laws to impress an extremely conservative view of Christianity on its residences even without the Scourge. It is an easy extension of today’s current political climate and fights occuring across the United States in legislative bodies and courts. Jordan’s addition of melachroming adds another layer of complexity to this well-developed dystopian world and raises questions about criminality and how society perceives criminals that compliments rather than distracts from Hannah’s story. And given my own decisive opinions on abortion and religion, it gave me something more to examine and question as I listened to the book.

The singular downside to narrative for me was the addition of a lesbian encounter between Hannah and Simone. I resent the suggestion that a personal, religiously-based awakening immediately leads to a homosexual relationship. Jordan does a disservice to the purpose of her book with this addition as it could be taken as confirmation of the fears of many conservatives that a less fundamentalist adherence to religion will lead to their children becoming gay. I also did not love the narration by Heather Corrigan as I could barely tolerate the sound of her voice, but I was willing to listen to her voice for nearly eleven hours in order to hear more of Jordan’s imaginative tale.

Others’ Thoughts:

Books Mentioned:

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ann Arbor, MI: Borders Classics, 2004. Originally published 1850. Print. 203 pgs. ISBN: 158726093X. Source: Purchased.
  • Jordan, Hillary. When She Woke. Read by Heather Corrigan. Prince Frederick, MD: HighBridge Audio, 2011. 10 hours, 42 minutes. ISBN: 9781611745702. Source: Library.
Audiobook Cover © HighBridge Audio. Retrieved: September 4, 2014.
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