Written by Hillary Jordan
Published by Algonquin Books on 2012
Genres: Fiction, General, Dystopian
Bellwether Prize winner Hillary Jordan's provocative new novel, When She Woke, tells the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromedÑtheir skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimesÑand then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.
In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.
WHEN SHE WOKE, THE SCARLET LETTER met THE HANDMAID’S TALE
- What’s it about? In the America of Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, a sexually-transmitted pandemic has ravaged the population. The economy is weak, and the fundamentalists have won the culture wars and political power. Due to the costs, lawbreakers are no longer imprisoned. Instead, they are Chromed. This process injects a dye that will color their bodies for the length of their sentence–if it doesn’t kill them first. Chromes can live openly, but they are also openly stigmatized and subjected to discrimination and persecution. The color signifies the person’s crime: arsonists are Greens, child molesters are Blues, murderers are Reds.
After she aborts her pregnancy and refuses to name either the father or the doctor who performed the illegal procedure, Hannah Payne is sentenced to 16 years as a Red. The father is married to someone else, the former pastor of her family’s church, and now America’s Minister of Faith. Hannah stands by the choices that led to her being Chromed, but she may not be fully prepared to live with the consequences.
- Why did I read it? Since the election, American life–especially for women–has had moments of feeling like a real-life dystopia. Rather than escaping it, I wanted to read fiction that fleshed that idea out. I last re-read The Handmaid’s Tale five years ago and thought it was too soon for another go. I’d bought When She Woke a while ago, attracted by its reported resemblance to Margaret Atwood’s modern classic. This felt like the right time for it.
It Couldn’t Happen Here…But Maybe It Could?
- What worked for me? Does anyone actually like The Scarlet Letter? If I’d realized that When She Woke connects more directly to Hawthorne’s novel than to Atwood’s, I might not have been so eager to read it. Some parallels are obvious: Hannah Payne –> Hester Prynne; Aidan Dale –> Arthur Dimmesdale. Others are less clear at first, but the idea of Chroming–a public declaration of wrongdoing which gives the community license to shun and openly mistreat the wrongdoer–owes a lot to Puritan society. (To some degree, the whole concept of an American theocracy probably derives from that early Colonial period.) That said, When She Woke is much more compelling as a story than The Scarlet Letter. I read this one in under a week, and it’s rare for me to do that these days.
- What didn’t I like? The plot is engrossing and the pacing is good. However, in many respects When She Woke is a novel where the ideas are more interesting than the execution. A review from Bitch Media points this out:
“The value of books such as When She Woke is to take anti-choice rhetoric and make it a reality—to force those who would deny women reproductive rights to really look at the consequences of what they’re pushing for. Jordan’s book is also valuable in pointing out that criminalizing abortion will never prevent it from happening, but will simply force it underground.”
- Recommended? Yes, mostly. When She Woke is not a classic in the mode of The Handmaid’s Tale–or even The Scarlet Letter, for that matter. But it is well-imagined, provocative and alarmingly timely.
Completed reading: December 2016
When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.
She saw her hands first. She held them in front of her eyes, squinting up at them. For a few seconds, shadowed by her eyelashes and backlit by the hard white light emanating from the ceiling, they appeared black. Then her eyes adjusted, and the illusion faded. She examined the backs, the palms. They floated above her, as starkly alien as starfish. She’d known what to expect — she’d seen Reds many times before, of course, on the street and on the vid — but still, she wasn’t prepared for the sight of her own changed flesh. For the twenty-six years she’d been alive, her hands had been a honey-toned pink, deepening to golden brown in the summertime. Now, they were the color of newly shed blood.
She felt panic rising, felt her throat constrict and her limbs begin to quiver. She shut her eyes and forced herself to lie still, slowing her breathing and focusing on the steady rise and fall of her belly. A short, sleeveless shift was all that covered her, but she wasn’t cold. The temperature in the room was precisely calibrated to keep her comfortable. Punishment was meted out in other ways: in increments of solitude, monotony and, harshest of all, self-reflection, both figurative and literal. She hadn’t yet seen the mirrors, but she could feel them shimmering at the edges of her awareness, waiting to show her what she’d become. She could sense the cameras behind the mirrors too, recording her every eyeblink and muscle twitch, and the watchers behind the cameras, the guards, doctors and technicians employed by the state and the millions watching at home, feet propped up on the coffee table, a beer or a soda in one hand, eyes fixed on the vidscreen. She told herself she would give them nothing: no proofs or exceptions for their case studies, no reactions to arouse their scorn or pity. She would sit up, open her eyes, see what was there to be seen and then wait calmly for them to release her. Thirty days was not such a long time.