When She Woke: A Novel by Hillary Jordan (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2011. 368 pp)

Hillary Jordan earned her B.A. in English and Political Science from Wellesley College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. She worked as an advertising copywriter for 15 years before she became a full-time author. Jordan has received the Bellwether Prize and an Alex Award from the American Library Association.

The Scarlet Letter

When I was a wee boy learning the ways of the six string, I would attempt to write a new guitar riff every day. Most of these musical progressions stunk like durian fruit. Occasionally, I would write something adequate. These moments excite. Something I could share with the world! Maybe?

One day I “wrote” an excellent, dark, melodic riff. I shared it with the first guitarist I could find. Fame and fortune surely come next.

But alas, I had written the opening riff to Ozzie Osborne’sCrazy Train.”

Art often imitates previous art forms, even when we are unaware of the connections. The humanity within art yearns to be repeated.

With When She Woke, Hillary Jordan riffs with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. While the roots of this story bear no connection to Hawthorne’s classic novel, Jordan builds from this connection to create an intriguing narrative.

The Color of Her Sin

Set in a future dystopia, the protagonist of When She Woke, Hannah Payne, is convicted of murdering her unborn child. Punishment for murder has shifted in this era. With a strained prison system, penitence occurs not in the prison system but through the chroming of skin. The guilty take on the hue of their sin.

In Hannah’s case, murderers exhibit red skin.

“At least she still had her eyes to remind her of who she was. Hannah Elizabeth Payne. Daughter of John and Samantha. Sister of Rebecca. Killer of a child, unnamed” (7).

Hannah’s inflictions, however, could easily find remedy with the naming of the father. But doing so is out of the question:

“Because I would have been compelled to name Aidan as the father or go to prison for contempt until I did. Because they would have notified the state paternity board, subpoenaed him, had him tested, ordered Ignited Word to garnish his wages for child support. Destroyed his life and his ministry. Because I loved him, more even than our child. And still do” (25).

Aidain, her pastor, employer, and the love of her life.

Life will never be the same.

Religious Dystopia

“Chromes” must submit to a new chroming every 6 months or else their minds fragment and they go crazy. These sentences last a long time, and the life of a “chrome” is unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous.

Law cares little about the guilty and citizens act against chromes with impunity. Rape and murder are not out of the question.

Life unprotected from the ills of society wears on poor Hannah. The pious Daddy’s girl of yesterday switches with the hardened atheist of today:

“Not so long ago, she too would have turned to God for help as a matter of course, would he believed without question that He was interested enough in her one small life to intervene in it. She probed the place within herself where He used to reside and found an empty, ragged socket. Her faith—not just in His love, but in His existence—was gone” (156).

In the end, When She Woke explores the nasty underside of what might happen in a theocracy.

The Disinherited

Politics aside, Jordan does a good job exploring the inequality and danger of being a woman in a male-dominated system. Hannah’s plight is a sad reminder of a system that punishes the woman for the collective sins of a people.

When She Woke is derivative but enjoyable. I’m doubtful about it being considered a classic, but the way it plays with what has come before it makes it interesting.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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