With When She Woke Hillary Jordan has written a powerful dystopia that tackles, among other ideas, our attitude towards criminal justice, and what it means to pay for one’s crime, separation of church and state, and freedom.Combining Hawthorne’s public humiliation of sinners (even the protagonist’s name, Hannah Payne, echoes Hester Prynne and the opening chapter is titled “The Scaffold”) from The Scarlet Letter with reality TV, abolitionists’ Underground Railroad, the extreme religious/political right, big brother technology, and a personal awakening story, Hillary Jordan gives us a scary glimpse into an all too possible near future.
The novel opens with two great sentences:
When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.
In Jordan’s world, prisons are reserved for only the worst of the worst and most criminals are punished by chroming: genetic alteration of the skin pigment to a Crayola color: yellow for short sentence misdemeanors, blue for child molestation, green for crimes like arson, assault, robbery and red for murder. The story is told from the perspective of Hannah chromed red for having an abortion. She has refused to name her abortionist or the father and earns a longer sentence. Her initial time in jail and chroming are shown on live TV — again questioning our need, as a society, to watch the suffering of others, often making ourselves feel superior.
We follow Hannah on her journey from a girl raised in an evangelical home through a crisis of faith to her ultimate destination — a physical, spiritual, and emotional end of an odyssey.
Hannah faces violence and is ostracized by her crime which cannot be hidden. She befriends another woman at a ‘rehabilitation’ center where she is further shamed and after attempting to fit in with family, Hannah and Kayla strike out on their own, eventually becoming involved with a rebellion that has essentially created a new underground railroad. While the later part of the novel has fewer echoes of The Scarlett Letter, the issue of Hannah’s relationship with her lover continues to be explored as does the themes of religious extremism.
Ultimately, the novel is about dichotomy: choice vs predestination, retribution vs punishment, religion vs spiritualism, compassion vs hatred and more. Fortunately, such topics weren’t dealt with in a simplistic manner nor so much as resolved as they were explored.
The characters were well drawn and for the most part sympathetic. Hannah was complex and her struggle with a situation that was horrific on several levels was believable although perhaps compressed. I didn’t always love her — in fact there were times I wanted to shake her and say “how can you think that” but that is coming from my own largely liberal belief system and when I failed to remember that she had a lifetime of being in a system that she never had much cause to question. Characters weren’t explained and the reader had to allow them to develop.
Which brings me to my only complaint — I would have liked that exploration to have been a bit slower. Same for the world they lived in. There were hints that intrigued me about these “terrorist/freedom fighter” groups — were there others like the Novembrists or groups more extreme like “The Fist” (a group who uses religion to justify their violent attacks and even murder of ‘chromes’)? And I wanted more closure on Hannah’s sister Becca’s story. While I don’t feel that the story was incomplete, I did feel the journey followed a few more threads — maybe some time in chrometown?
The novel has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale and it certainly holds its own — where it fell short of the novel I consider one of the great political dystopian novels is in the language — the wit of Atwood and the way she created a layer of sacred language used to justify or hide the most profane of acts. Jordan does write well and the novel is a great read but fell just short of brilliant for me. That being said, it is still a powerful novel, a deep exploration of a number of themes, a criticism of extremism and some of our worst traits as a society, and a warning about the path we too often tread politically when we let religious ideology control policy.