Quick confession: I mostly reread The Scarlet Letter so that I could be better prepared for Hillary Jordan’s modern adaptation, When She Woke. I should have also reread some Atwood as Jordan’s novel is an almost perfect mixture of Hawthorne and Atwood’s most famous novels.
Hannah Payne’s world exists in a not too distant dystopian future where the United States has become something of a theocracy. A scourge has plagued the land making women briefly infertile until a cure is discovered. During this scourge, abortion becomes illegal and sanctity of life laws rule the day. A new justice system is created where criminals are melachromed different colors to represent their crimes. Hannah has just been turned Red to implicate her in the murder of her unborn child as an abortionist. She must reenter society shackled in her shame and deal with the violence, prejudice, and uncertainty that is unavoidable.
Jordan’s update of Hawthorne’s classic is topical, relevant, and intelligently woven. Hannah’s world is complex, well-build, and grounded in realities we can see poking through the cracks of modern society. Hanna’s world is intensely frightening because it’s entirely believable and perhaps Jordan’s greatest conquest in this retelling. I don’t want to get too political here, but newly named VP candidate Paul Ryan has consistently voted in favor of sanctity of life laws and abhors abortion no matter the circumstances.
The melachorming of criminals really intrigued me. With the prison system being so overrun with petty criminals and costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, this colorful solution seems almost valid enough to consider. Only the most violent of prisoners remains locked up in Hannah’s world with everyone else forced to display their crimes on a daily basis and deal with the ramifications – namely, extreme prejudice. The moral questions raised are deeply layered and not easily argued one way or the other. Violent hate groups pop up which put melachromes in danger on a daily basis. On the other hand, melachroming creates some very strong individuals who gather enough courage and strength to begin fighting the disastrous turn the country has taken. I loved the lack of black and white resolutions proposed by When She Woke.
As far as plot and story are concerned, the novel’s first half is fantastic. Swiftly plotted, well-written, and with enough twists and turns to hold anyone’s attention. The prose is concise and straight-forward, almost bleak which creates the perfect environment for Hannah’s predicaments and perilous journey. Hannah herself is likable, smart, and someone you can really get behind. Unfortunately, the second half kind of falls apart. The novel becomes less Hawthorne, more Civil War Underground Railroad, which could have been really interesting. But the novel’s plot becomes a bit too unhinged from reality and Hannah jumps the shark personality-wise. I believe Jordan’s intent in some of Hannah’s actions was to show her taking back her freedom and sexual liberation, but the execution was just off the mark for me. I no longer recognized Hannah as the same person anymore and thus, didn’t care as much about her ending.
As for the ending – way too rushed! And anti-climactic. I’d have appreciated an additional 50 pages to better end Hannah’s story. Hell, I’d even welcome a sequel at this point because I was left just so unsatisfied.
Overall, When She Woke is a great story with much to recommend it. The moral enigmas, well-crafted dystopian society, and general creativeness of the story help overcome the second half’s deficiencies. Pair it with The Scarlet Letter and you have a wonderful lesson plan for any high school or college classroom. Hillary Jordan is a truly gifted writer with an amazing imagination. Mudbound and When She Woke handle difficult issues such as racism and prejudice in wonderfully nuanced ways that set her apart from other authors. Her books would make great discussions between both parent and child as her writing straddles the line between young adult and adult fiction. Enjoy!