“When she woke, she was red.” From the very first sentence, Hillary Jordan’s sophomore effort starts off strong and never lets up. Jordan debuted with Mudbound (Algonquin, 2008), winner of a 2009 Alex Award. When She Woke has even more teen appeal. In this case the protagonist, Hannah Payne, is barely past her teen years, and her action-packed journey precipitates a coming-of-age.
In my review, I mention parallels with The Scarlet Letter. I have to admit that I was too busy racing through the novel the first time to take serious notice. I love a good, character-driven dystopian novel. (The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my all-time favorite books.) A more leisurely, review-writing-inspired second reading was even more enjoyable, and the surface parallels easily stood out. From the heroine’s initials, to the title of Part I (“The Scaffold”), to Hannah’s affair with a man of God, to branding as punishment. I would hate to ruin all the fun, so I will leave the rest to your own discovery.
One of the things that makes this novel particularly effective is how similar Hannah’s world is to our own. It has grown out of our current problems. In When She Woke, America is recovering from the Second Great Depression, and many of the decisions made during that period are wreaking havoc with personal freedoms and privacy. (Libraries and the freedom to read play a role in Hannah’s story, too.) Even before she committed a crime, Hannah’s life was strictly controlled.
Teens will see the (many) provocative issues raised in the narrative right away. Pairing this novel with any number of books with similar themes, from racism to the separation of church and state, in an upper-level high school literature course would make for lively discussion. Choosing it for a criminal justice, social justice, or sociology course would be equally exciting. And I guarantee that young adults reading this for fun will want to talk about it.
Adult/High School–Hannah Payne, barely out of her teens, wakes up in a white room lined with mirrors that accentuate her bright red skin. Cameras broadcast her every move. In the aftermath of the Second Great Depression, nonviolent criminals undergo melachroming. Red for murder. Yellow for a misdemeanor. Blue for child molestation. When She Woke wears its dystopian setting lightly. The focus is Hannah, whose strict evangelical, sheltered Texas upbringing fails to prevent her from falling in love with the leader of her (mega)church, Reverend Aidan Dale. Terminating her pregnancy in order to protect his reputation lands her a 16-year sentence as a Red, a nonviolent murderer. After the Great Scourge left many women sterile, Roe v. Wade was reversed and Sanctity of Life laws passed in 40 states. After 30 days of public humiliation in prison, Hannah is released back into the world and seeks refuge at the Straight Path Center, hoping to find her way back to God. Terrible treatment causes her to flee, and she is eventually taken into a kind of underground railroad that carries her north where she might pursue a more normal life. As Hannah begins making her own choices for the first time, she becomes stronger. Issues from racism to the criminal justice system, the nature of God, free will, privacy, and the death penalty come up as a natural result of Hannah’s personal awakening and harrowing journey. Even though the last 60 pages are too coincidental and forced, the ending itself is satisfying and realistic. Initially reminiscent of The Scarlet Letter (and literary teens will enjoy tracing the parallels), the story more closely resembles Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City