Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

The plot of this book intrigued me - a futuristic retelling of The Scarlet Letter - along with the reviews and as the author is coming to town tonight, I decided to jump this book to the head of the pile and read it right away! Now, I'm not 100% sure just yet, but I think When She Woke might just end up being the best book I've read all year.

Hannah Payne has been chromed - turned fire engine red - as punishment for killing her unborn baby by having an abortion. We are about 20 years in the future (not quite as far out as most futuristic books which made this one both more relatable, and also much more terrifying.) After 9/11, Los Angeles has been nuclear bombed and the United States has practically wiped Iran off the planet. A religious political party has taken hold and fundamentalism is on the rise. Hannah grew up in a fundamentalist household, wearing only long skirts, not reading unapproved books, and being taught to become a helpmeet for her future husband. Her family thinks there's no reason for women to go to college, and she has never worn pants. So it's surprising when she falls in love with her married minister, Rev. Dale. And she gets pregnant. And abortion is now a horrible crime, due to the fact that several years ago a super strain of the clap went around and most women are now infertile. The chroming was invented as a cost saving measure after the Second Great Depression, so society no longer has to pay to house inmates (aside from violent murderers) and instead the general public's shunning, harassment, and sometimes assaults and murder, are the criminals' punishment now. There are also blues (sexual crimes) yellows (misdemeanors) and others, but reds (abortion, attempted murder) are among the worst. And now Hannah has to try to find her way in a world where her God has abandoned her, her family has mostly disowned her, her lover has to keep quiet, and she doesn't know where to turn. The title, in addition to being very literal, describing how she woke and found herself red, also refers to Hannah's awakening. She discovers she can think and be an independent individual, she doesn't need a man to figure things out for her, and she also needs to discover a new relationship with God (or not.)

I don't remember The Scarlet Letter all that well, having last read it about 20 years ago, but it did seem to match up in spots to my memories, but Ms. Jordan didn't claim to be doing a literal rewrite, so if there are flaws in the parallels, I wouldn't worry about them (obviously, right off the bat we see an issue where her daughter isn't alive which should tell people this is more of an interpretation of the earlier work.) The writing is alive and sharp, the terrifying aspects of chroming that Hannah goes through are palpable, and the future Mr. Jordan has drawn is terrifyingly close and plausible. I wanted to reach into the book and help Hannah, she seemed so real. And normally I find a lot of religion off-putting, but not here; it was handled so even-handedly that I think anyone except the most close-minded people will find moments of understanding and clarity. Parts of the book were even action-packed and I felt anxious and scared for Hannah and the people who helped her. I hope and pray that the United States would never become so intolerant and judgmental, but I do fear we are headed that way. And books like When She Woke are great because it's not only a good read, but a good opener for a dialogue about our future and how to avoid some mistakes when we still have time.

A friend who works at a bookstore sent me an ARC.

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