When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011)

She took a seat apart from the other passengers, but even so, the ones nearest her moved away, scooting farther down the bench and, in the case of a mother with a toddler in her arms, getting up and going into the next car. Hannah found herself in a kind of magic circle of ignominy. Her first instinct was to try to make herself invisible, but then a sudden defiance rose in her, and she looked directly into the faces of her fellow passengers, these people who felt so repelled by and morally superior to her. Most avoided her gaze, but a few glared back at her, affronted that she’d dared to rest her eyes on them. She wondered how many of them were liars, their outer purity masking the crimes as dark or darker than her own. How many would be Chromes themselves, if the truth in their hearts were revealed (p 172)?

when-she-wokeIn Jordan’s dystopian, futuristic retelling of Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Hannah Payne is punished for aborting the fetus begot by her lover, the married and well-respected evangelist Aiden Dale. Roe v. Wade has been overturned and abortion is infanticide. The embroidered scarlet letter is replaced by a chemical skin coloring. (Hannah is turned bright red signifying murder. Sexual assault criminals are colored blue while other offenders may be orange or green or yellow.) The shame and societal repercussions are severe.

Hannah, having refused to name the father, bares the brunt of the punishment alone. Prison is simultaneously solitary and non-private, as video of her experience is broadcasted. When released, she is implanted with a tracking device so authorities and the public can find her at any time. She also receives an implant preventing pregnancy. Her sentence is for sixteen years.

Reviews have been mixed for When She Woke and I admit to having mixed feelings about it. I was mostly impressed by the prose. On a few occasions I thought the narrative expounded unnecessarily and overemotionally. This very fault, however, makes it more accessible to emerging adults in my opinion.

Many individual scenes were poignant (Hannah’s exit from the shelter and her encounter with her pregnant sister and her husband, for example), while some of the overarching themes, especially those about religion, were simultaneously over-simplified and unnecessarily complicated. It’s as if the novel was trying to tackle too many things (the justice system, shame, brutality, forgiveness, redemption, church versus state, feminism, personal belief, black market economies, corruption, hypocrisy, and on and on and on) and it could handle only a handful skillfully.  Some of those issues could have been left for the reader to piece together. Instead, the narrative was, at time, heavy-handed.

On a personal note, I was irked when Hannah visited Aiden for one last perfect memory. Sure, she was a different person, but let’s not forget that Aiden was a religious figure, an authority figure who really took advantage of someone much lower on the power scale. And after all she suffered and learned, she felt the need to go to him? Hum.

Regardless, it is an action-packed book that will surely spark discussion with some adoring it and some… well, some of the opposite. The cover is gorgeous. 

Read other reviews:
All American Indian Girl
Kirkus Book Review
Washington Post

Hardcover edition provided by the publisher |Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing | ISBN 978-1565126299 | 341 $24.95

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