Monday, October 10, 2011

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): When She Woke is, in its simplest terms, a futuristic retelling of The Scarlet Letter. This sophomore novel from Mudbound author Hillary Jordan takes Hawthorne's classic several steps further, turning it into a pointed, blunt warning about the consequences of an America run by the church, not the state. Hannah Payne is sentenced to sixteen years of melachroming for aborting her child. Instead of bearing a scarlet "A" like Hester, Hannah's pigment is dyed a stop sign red, leading her to endure an ostracizing societal punishment as well. Jordan seamlessly interweaves the back story of Hannah's relationship with her unborn child's father; their relationship is sudden, passionate and the short interspersed flashbacks enhance the story and Hannah's spontaneous personality. While she stumbles through rebuilding her life, her sudden decisions in moments of trouble are made with confidence and determination. Jordan purposefully makes the story about Hannah's journey by keeping her secondary characters exactly that -- secondary. Although they may guide and assist Hannah on her path, the decisions, character-building, and strength all come from within. Hannah is ultimately responsible for her future and she takes full responsibility for her past.

And here's what I thought:   I'm one of those people who re-reads Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale every so often, just because I like it so much (and because it never fails to make me think).   I know this book is more a retelling of The Scarlet Letter, but both stories focus on women, birth/pregnancy, and the color red.     I enjoyed this book enough to put it right up there with Atwood's book, and anticipate that I'll be re-reading it again, as well.

So, as you can tell, I really liked this book.  I thought the main character was interesting and sympathetic, and I really liked how the author took the idea of a scarlet letter and just amped it up.   As you can see from the summary, in this world (which appears very much to be a future/alternate version of our own), when people are found guilty of crimes, their skin is colored completely one color: yellow is for misdemeanors, blue is reserved for worse crimes, like molesting children, and red is assigned to murderers.   And, having chosen abortion, Hannah is melachromed, so that anyone who sees her knows she has been found guilty.  

In our society, people are found guilty of crimes, but once they get out of jail, it's often difficult to tell them apart from other people (more or less --- is someone has a lot of visible prison tattoos, that does make them stand out).   In this society, people wear their guilt for everyone around them to say.  People don't treat them well; in fact, it's really dangerous for a lot of the "Chromes" because they are so hated by people.    Luckily for Hannah, there are a few options for her once she is chromed, and she has somewhere to go.  However, people are not always who they seem --- someone might seem like they want to help her, and instead, have much different, and darker, intentions.   Discrimination against Chromes is illegal, but it's commonplace anyway, making the world a very dangerous place if you are a Chrome (even if you are a yellow).

The summary above says that the secondary characters are just that, people who affect Hannah, but who aren't integral to the whole story.   I agree.   This story is all about Hannah, and her decisions, and her journey.  I really liked that Hannah had a mind of her own, despite her upbringing and her family's best efforts to make her pliant, and a "good girl."     On page 253, Hannah is reflecting on her upbringing, and she says, "She'd always believed that her parents had done right by her, but now, sitting mute at Stanton's table, she found herself seething over their choices.   Why had they kept her life so small?  Why had they never asked her what she wanted?  At every possible turn, she saw, they'd chosen the path that would keep her weak and dependent.  And the fact that they wouldn't see it that way, that they sincerely believed they'd acted in her best interest, didn't make it any less true, or them any less culpable."    I can feel the fury in this statement, and not only because it's Hannah saying it, but because I know there are girls and women who say this kind of thing even now.    Is Hannah sorry about what she's done in her past?  I think so, but she's also accepting of it, and takes responsibility for the decisions she has made.   I really like that about her -- I like that she never seems like a victim.  

I found the story, itself, to be really thought-provoking, in a very chilling way.   As someone who firmly believes in everyone's right to worship, the idea of a church-run America doesn't fill me with good feelings.  I thought Jordan did a good job of showing how this society works, making it quite clear how the decisions of one religion determine the lives of everyone.    I also felt the whole Chrome idea was interesting, the thought of taking a scarlet letter so much further, making it impossible for someone to deny their crime, and wear it on their bodies for everyone to see.   

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, even though there were parts that were uncomfortable, because I liked that it made me think (and I liked Hannah, too).   This would make a great book for book groups, because I think there'd be some really good discussions that come out of it.   

First sentencesWhen she woke, she was red.  Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.

Thoughts on the cover:   Perfectly conveys not only the complete red-ness of Hannah, but also the story.  Definitely eye-catching and once you know the story, thought-provoking.


Jo K said...

This certainly seems like I book that makes you think. I liked The Scarlet Letter, I 'd probably like this book, too - I have to add it to my to-read list. Great review!

Kat @ NoPageLeftBehind said...

I also loved this thought-provoking book! Fantastic review :)

Ceska said...

Great book i recommend it to everyone. Couldnt put it down my only complaint is that the end seemed to wrap up to quickly and neatly i thought it lost a little something but overall i believe no one who reads it will regret doing so.

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