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When She Woke

January 21, 2015

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter with a bit of flavor from The Handmaid’s Tale. It is set in a future U.S. where criminals are “chromed” to a color matching their particular sin and there is no separation of church and state. The protagonist, Hannah Payne, wakes after her trial for abortion to find herself turned red and continuously on TV for the first 30 days of her sentence, after which she is turned out to survive the next sixteen years as best she can.

Much of Hannah’s story is told in retrospect. She thinks about her abortionist, who “told her he’d been an OB/GYN in Salt Lake City when the superclap epidemic broke out…and Utah became the nexus of the conservative backlash…that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.” In this future, Utah and then Texas pass “sanctity of life” laws. The “superclap” or “scourge” made women sterile, “and by the time the cure was found in the seventh year, there’d been talk of quarantining and compulsory harvesting of the eggs of healthy young women, measures that Congress almost certainly would have passed had the superbiotics come any later.”

Hannah’s innocence gives her adventures fresh power to shock. Her time at an “Enlightenment” center where new “reds” are tortured is as brief as the time it takes her to act on her mounting indignation over how the others are treated: “Enlightenment was the worst…a lecture from a visiting doctor on the gory specifics of the procedure, complete with jars of fetuses in formaldehyde; an ‘ideation session’ where they had to imagine alternate futures for their aborted children; a holovid showing bloody, half-aborted babies trying to crawl out of their mothers’ wombs.”
Her few forays onto the streets are fraught with peril, because even though “discrimination against Chromes was illegal in municipal buildings…the law was rarely enforced in privately owned businesses, and NO CHROMES ALLOWED signs were commonplace.”
The chromes have trackers, so any nut who wants to know where a particular one is can track her down and kill her, like Hannah’s brother-in-law, who tells his wife he is in a group like the “promise keepers” but which turns out to be called “The Fist” and nearly catches up with Hannah before she is rescued by a revolutionary group that jams the signal of her tracker right before her brother-in-law catches up to her in the parking lot of a mall.

The revolutionary group runs an underground railroad for reds who need to get to Canada, which “had severed relations with the United States after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of melachroming.” The members of the group help Hannah escape from her sentence, but they also help her escape her narrow view of the world, patiently answering questions like “how can you pray to a God who considers you an abomination?” and showing faith in her ability to grow, change, and protect the secrets of those who help her.

There’s a bit of wish fulfillment for any woman who has previously read Hawthorne in what Hannah says to the father of her aborted child, before disappearing forever into the Canadian wilderness: “I’m not a child that you’ve wronged or led astray….at every point along the way I made my own choices, the choices that felt right for me, and…I’m prepared to live with the consequences. What I won’t live with ever again are shame and regret, and I hope you won’t either.” It’s satisfying to see the “scarlet woman” get a voice at last.

This is a page-turner of a satire, a book that uses exaggeration to make its points about where we have been as Americans, and where we are likely to go if we don’t stop and think about which way we’re currently being swept by our own elected officials. Not everyone is as intelligent and self-aware as the fictional Hannah, a sheltered child who learned what little she knew about the world from reading all the books on a banned books list. She’s a heroine after a reader’s own heart, and her terror when she woke could be ours if we don’t wake to enough of our own peril in time.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2015 9:51 am

    We had some really lively discussion when we read this for book club

    • January 26, 2015 8:06 am

      I’ll bet! The “what if” game could go on for a while.

  2. January 21, 2015 10:43 am

    I thought this one was so interesting and great in concept but I struggled with a few things. It really bugged me that there was no subtlety in the characters’ lives. Either you were a crazy religious fanatic or you were a victim. I did like some aspects, but it wasn’t my favorite.

    • January 26, 2015 8:05 am

      As a lover of satire, I appreciate exaggeration for the sake of highlighting flaws, so the lack of subtlety didn’t bother me.

  3. January 21, 2015 11:02 am

    I thought this one was fantastic and was lucky enough to go to a conversation (as opposed to a reading) with Hilary Jordan right after it was published. She was great and had some very interesting things to say about our reality tv world and how that concept played into the story as well.

    • January 26, 2015 8:07 am

      Reality TV, huh? I guess that is part of it, especially with the new chrome waking to find herself on TV continuously for the first 30 days.

  4. January 21, 2015 3:57 pm

    ooh, I’ve got this book! I’ve not read it yet, had actually forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder. Now, I’m going to have to start searching my shelves for it.

    • January 26, 2015 8:08 am

      Unfortunately, the satire is not outdated yet. So it’s still a good time to read it.

  5. January 21, 2015 6:17 pm

    I read this book when it first came out and keep meaning to read her other book, at least I think she only has one other book, and haven’t yet. I really liked this one, though!

    • January 26, 2015 8:09 am

      There’s lots to like in this one, I agree. I haven’t read anything else by her.

  6. Irene McKenna permalink
    January 22, 2015 5:53 pm

    Excellent post! The premise of this book is quite interesting, and I loved Mudbound by the same author.

  7. January 23, 2015 2:57 pm

    I read bits of her other book, Mudbound, but it was too ghastly to continue with. I don’t mind when books are dark, but I couldn’t bear reading the bits where the racist Southerners were so so disrespectful of the black veteran. And I read the end and that was really horrible too. This sounds like all the darkness while pushing none of those buttons. Yay!

    • January 26, 2015 8:11 am

      It sounds like this one pushes different buttons. As with the end of the Handmaid’s Tale (with the Historical Notes), when the end of a satire is horrible, it’s because you’re supposed to feel dissatisfied and take that feeling from the fiction out into the world with you, where you might be able to make a difference because of it.

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