Title: When She Woke
Author: Hillary Jordan
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
Hannah Payne has always been devoted to her strict Christian faith, but when she chooses to have an abortion (illegal under Texas law) and refuses to name the father of her baby, she is sentenced to serve time as a chrome. Instead of keeping prisoners locked up, the government now releases them back into the public after a very brief incarceration, chroming them based on the severity of their rime. Hannah’s skin is changed to a deep shade of red, branding her for everyone around her to see. Once Hannah is released, she begins to question the faith she blindly followed and tries to find an new path for herself.
When She Woke is set in a not-too-distant future in which abortion has been outlawed and religious fervor has become intertwined with the government. It’s a scary place that Hannah lives, and astonishing how strict her religion is. The most frightening aspect of the novel, though, is how recognizable this world is. It’s not too far distant from where we live now, and Jordan makes sure the reader is very aware of that over the course of the book.
In the simplest terms, When She Woke is a retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but instead of being required to wear a letter for her crime, Hannah’s skin color is changed completely. However, this novel is so complex that it does it a disservice to call it a mere “retelling”. It’s easy to see how some of Jordan’s basic ideas came from that classic novel, but Jordan deals with so many modern issues that it makes this novel unique. In fact, this book would work incredibly well for book clubs; it has many discussion points, and isn’t too heavy or difficult of a read.
Hannah is really an amazingly drawn character. At the beginning of the book, she is paralyzed by shame and guilt. While she knows she made the right decision for herself, she has difficulty with the life she is going to face. But as she considers her situation and reaches out to other chromes, Hannah really grows up. She begins to question her beliefs, everything she has been taught, and realizes that there is so much more to life than what she once thought. I loved witnessing this amazing growth, the opening of her mind as she made herself aware of what she had been missing.
While I enjoyed When She Woke, I wouldn’t recommend it to all readers. Those with firm conservative (and especially fundamentalist) Christian beliefs will likely be offended by this book, as it definitely has a liberal slant. Hannah must grow out of that fundamentalist Christian shell. That’s not to say this book is anti-Christian, though; I believe its message is that inquisitiveness, curiosity, that desire to learn, are so important to who we are. When our freedom to question, to doubt, is taken from us, we become lesser beings. I appreciated that message and enjoyed this novel very much.