Review: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

Hillary Jordan’s novel When She Woke is frequently described as a mashup of The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale (review). I wouldn’t disagree with that characterization, and it seems clear that Jordan was attempting to evoke comparisons to both books. The novel’s protagonist, Hannah Payne, lives in a dystopian near-future after which a terrorist bombing has nearly obliterated Los Angeles and a horrible new sexually transmitted disease rendered many women infertile until a cure was found. Seizing the fears of the populace, the Religious Right convinces many that the natural disasters, wars, and disease are the judgment of God against America. Out of concern for the sanctity of life after so many threats to its existence, the evangelical Trinity Party is able to pass new laws all over America condemning adultery and “fornication” and outlawing abortion. In Hannah’s America, criminals undergo a process called melachroming. They are injected with a virus that turns their skin different colors based on the severity of their crimes. Hannah’s crime is that she had an abortion, rather than expose her minister as the baby’s father and subject him to the punishment their society would mete out. Abortion is considered to be murder, and Hannah is ordered to be melachromed. When she awakens from the procedure, she is red.

Jordan is not exactly a match for Nathaniel Hawthorne or Margaret Atwood, but few writers are, and what she does manage in this book is an intriguing and quite plausible story—all the more plausible during this election season if you listen to the rhetoric of some of the politicians running for president. Hannah takes some time to discover herself, and she begins to doubt much of the religious teaching she has heard all of her life. Do I believe that some people would find the idea of melachroming people as punishment for crime plausible? Jordan’s idea is all too believable and brings Nathaniel Hawthorne’s punishment of wearing a scarlet letter to a horrifying evolution. It makes a lot of sense to me that “chromes,” as they are known in the novel, would become the targets of discrimination and all manner of ill treatment, from assault and rape to murder.

It would be easy for some to dismiss this novel as alarmist and far-fetched. However, we do engage in public shaming (think about how quickly we embarrass those who transgress on social media). Magdalene Houses bear an eerie resemblance to the halfway house where Hannah stays after she is released from the Chrome Ward—there is even a picture of Mary Magdalene in the Straight Path Center. There are always individuals who, in pretending to offer help to the downtrodden, actually victimize them further because society cares so little about them. The novel also includes a note of caution about the increasingly wired lives we are living. Chromes (and really everyone else) are all trackable; hiding is impossible, and running away is fatal. Money exists almost solely on a NIC card, and a port (a futuristic smart phone) is a lifeline to the world, but Hannah will risk immediate detection if she tries to use either device. Ultimately, this novel is all too easy to believe. However, in the end, like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a thoughtful meditation on forgiveness and the true nature of God.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I received this book free via a Goodreads giveaway (full FTC disclosure) a very long time ago, and I am embarrassed it took me so long to read and review. It’s been on my Goodreads shelf since October 8, 2011, and I imagine it’s been in my TBR pile almost that long. I’m glad I finally read it. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge because of how long it’s been on my shelf and in my TBR list.
 

Related posts: