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When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan has been compared to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, but it is really a combination of the two as Hannah Payne is not melachromed for adultery, but for another sin and she lives in a world where the separation between church and state has been broken.  Roe vs. Wade has been overturned once a scourge has rendered most women unable to have children and men who are carriers unwittingly have passed the disease onto unsuspecting partners.  Under the defense of saving the human race, society has outlawed abortion.  This idea parallels the notions of The Handmaid’s Tale, though the society in that novel is more severe in terms of limiting women’s rights and control over their bodies.

Punishment for breaking the laws of this society are no longer being thrown in jail, but being chromed and thrown back out into society to face ridicule and stigmatization.  Chroming takes place when a virus — which had unknown side effects for many years and often results in fragmentation of the brain if not re-administered every six months or reversed properly — turns the skin the color of the crime, such as red for violent offenders and blue for molesters.  Once back in society these men and women are looked upon as freaks and outsiders, and they are lucky if they are given jobs to survive on their own while their sentence is carried out.

“The virus no longer mutated the pigment of the eyes as it had in the early days of melachroming.  There’d been too many cases of blindness, and that, the courts had decided, constituted cruel and unusual punishment.”  (Page 6-7)

Aiden Dale in Jordan’s book is very reminiscent of Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter in that his character is very weak and he is forced by the pressures of guilt to confess.  Naturally, Hannah is a young women in a close knit community of religious communities and the injury of her father leaves the family in a precarious position until their pastor Aiden Dale comes to the rescue.  His character is only seen through Hannah’s eyes as she is the main point of view throughout the novel, which leaves a lot of his motivations in question, especially given the relationship he embarks upon as a pastor and married man.

Jordan’s novel is very fast-paced, and may even be too fast-paced as it seems that Hannah needs a moment to slow down, breathe, reflect but her character is very emotional, impulsive, and impatient.  Given her upbringing in a religious community, it is clear that she knows little of the outside world in Texas, which is cliche location for a novel about ultraconservative religious groups, etc.  Her actions are frustrating, but at least they are understandable given her upbringing, but there are other occasions where she seems superior in her perceptions of others’ personalities and actions and yet completely oblivious when others are plying her with food and a place to sleep after being chromed.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is ultimately a mesh of worlds that does not go to the extremes of the other nations created by Atwood and Hawthorne, and in that, the world building loses ground as it uses a heavy-handed nature in drawing parallels to today’s society, its punishments, and our own history of discrimination against certain groups.  However, this novel would make an excellent selection for a book club discussion given the issues it raises about the separation of religion and government, abortion, crime and punishment, and other topics.

About the Author:

Hillary Jordan received her BA in English and Political Science from Wellesley College and spent fifteen years working as an advertising copywriter before starting to write fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.  (Photo by Michael Epstein)

What the Book Club Thought (beware of spoilers):

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan was one of the two books I nominated and the book club selected it for this month’s discussion.

Most members agreed that the character of Aiden was very weak and that we disliked him.  One member insisted that most of us had laid too much blame on Hannah for what happened to her, but the women of the group said that blame lied with both Aiden and Hannah.  Given that Hannah knew Aiden was not only her pastor, but also a married man, she should not have engaged in an illicit affair with him, and he knew he was married and a paragon of the community.  While this is billed as a love story, I didn’t see the depth I expect from love-based relationships and the relationship between Aiden and Hannah appeared to be more one of lust and passion than of love.

While some of the sci-fi elements worked best for one member of the book club, others of us were happy that unlike the Hunger Games series of books the back story as to why the society had changed so drastically was presented.  Some of the members thought that Jordan skewed some elements of the society such as making all of the religious figures and members mean or evil, except for the one female priest.  But one of us thought there was a balance in the casting as there were good and bad in both the religious community from the bad priest and his wife to Hannah’s father who was more tolerant and in the Novemberists (which reminded me of the V is for Vendetta movie with its focus on November and bombing, etc.) there were good and bad guys as well.

In terms of the books we’ve read so far, this one generated a great deal of discussion about what would happen in today’s society if Roe vs. Wade was overturned (which most of us don’t see happening), what punishments are considered cruel and unusual, what being a second-class citizen would entail if we were chromed, and how the women in the group felt about abortion.  One of our members also suggested that the book is focused on demonstrating that we should not judge others and their sins but worry about ourselves, even if we are devote Catholics, etc.

This is my 57th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.