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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Searing, Provocative Dystopian Scarlet Letter Begs to Be Discussed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Imagine a world where, instead of being sentenced to prison terms, criminals are chromed, their skin tinted different colors to announce their status as thieves, swindlers, pedophiles. That's the punishment given to all but the worst offenders in the dystopian U.S. of Hillary Jordan's thought-provoking new novel, When She Woke. A re-imagining of The Scarlet Letter, Jordan's book raises the same questions Hawthorne's did: Does one sinner have the right to judge another? When has one suffered enough for the act he/she committed? Who is more free - the incarcerated individual, whose crimes are publicly known, or the one whose guilt must be endured alone and in silence? How do "faithful" Christian people justify shaming, instead of forgiving, one who has wronged another? How much of a role - if any - should religion play in the formation and upholding of a country's laws? And, perhaps most relevant, what is the most effective method of punishing and reforming a wrongdoer?
For Hannah Payne, a 26-year-old seamstress, chroming is just a part of life. She sees Chromes frequently on the streets of Dallas, but like any good girl, she stays far away from them. A devout woman like Hannah, whose almost cloistered life revolves solely around her church and her family, has nothing in common with outcasts like them. At least that's what she thinks. Until a secret affair with a prominent minister leaves her pregnant. By law, she can't have the baby without naming its father. Not willing to risk her lover's pious reputation by exposing him as an adulterer, she seeks an abortion instead. The act, considered murder by both church and state, earns Hannah a sentence of 16 years as a Red.
When she's released from the hospital, where her chroming procedure was not only performed, but televised to the public, Hannah stumbles out into a world grown suddenly cruel. Her flaming red skin seems to render her inhuman, making her both a target for lewd jeers and a danger to be avoided at all costs. Shunned by her family, Hannah must make her way in a world where she has no rights, where discrimination colors her every interaction, where she's judged - instantly and harshly - by the crime she has committed. It's a bleak, tortorous existence, one made even more difficult by the fact that Hannah can't see her family or acknowledge the man she loves or live any kind of normal life. The shunning, the humiliation, the hardness of the punishment are all designed to teach Hannah one thing - how it feels to be victimized.
Hannah knows she could end it all by choosing suicide over endurance, but she doesn't have the courage to do to herself what she did to her unborn child. Besides, her new life is showing her things she never saw before: hypocrisy, lies, hate, and truth. As she struggles to come to terms with life as a Red, Hannah "unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love" (quote from jacket copy).
The premise of When She Woke intrigued me from the second I heard about it. It's a fascinating concept, explored in a way that is raw, searing, yet sympathetic, too. Much to my surprise, Jordan made me care about Hannah, even though I found her crime repugnant and her "selfless" justification deplorable. I didn't agree with the majority of Hannah's decisions, but I still found her story riveting. Jordan writes so vividly, so provocatively that I literally could not stop myself from turning the pages of When She Woke. In the end, though, I disagreed so strongly with Hannah's conclusions that I found myself ultimately disappointed by a novel I thought I might love. My own beliefs just differ too strongly, I guess, although I still think this novel would make a great book club choice. Like Hawthorne's masterpiece, When She Woke just begs to be discussed.
(Readalikes: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Small-Town Sinners by Melissa Walker)
Grade: B
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, sexual content and adult situations/themes
To the FTC, with love: I bought When She Woke at Changing Hands Bookstore with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.


  1. I know I've said this before, but I LOVE this blog. I rarely read a book without a recommendation. I feel so grateful for the "if this were a movie" portion of your posts. I feel comfortable adding stuff to my TBR list if it meets my PG, sometimes PG-13, criteria. Thank you!

  2. It sounds intriguing and discussion worthy but maybe a tad agenda-y?

  3. Michelle - Thanks for your kind words! I'm so glad the ratings are helpful.

    Jenny - Yes, definitely. It's well-written, but kind of preachy in a backwards sort of way. If that makes any sense.

  4. This definitely sounds like an amazingly thought provoking yet polarizing book. Thanks for your honesty because it sounds like I would have trouble identifying with Hannah as well and this might be one best skipped for me.

    ♥ Melissa @ Melissa's Eclectic Bookshelf

  5. Melissa - "Poplarizing" is a good way to describe it. It's very pro-choice - so it's preachy in that way.

    WHEN SHE WOKE is definitely not for everyone. In fact, if it wasn't so well written, I probably wouldn't have finished it.

  6. That should have read "polarizing" :)

  7. Love the honest reviews. I'm still on the fence about this one, though.


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