Hillary Jordan, “When She Woke”

Dystopian fiction: not a big category for me. Re-working of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: also not such a draw. Why, then, did I fall for When She Woke? Because Hillary Jordan is such a crackerjack story teller.

Mind you, this is no Mudbound. It’s always interesting to see writers taking chances by doing something different, when the obvious path to market share is to repeat what works. Still — there’s a very big distance between that historical multi-voiced Mississippi saga and this near-allegory of life in a puritanical, futuristic United States. What links the two is Jordan’s sheer readability. When She Woke is not without its annoyances: some of the rhetoric is strident, some of the characterization thin. But if you pick it up, chances are that you will keep reading. Here’s the first sentence: “When she woke, she was red.” That’s tough to top.

“She” is Hannah Payne (HP=Hester Prynne, in case you need reminding). She has been “melachromed,” subjected to a procedure that dyes the skin of criminals. Her infraction — a sin, really — is that she had an abortion. Of course the earlier sin was having illicit sex, but Hannah is a plucky gal, constantly in trouble with the repressive evangelical Christian regime that runs her family, her church, Texas, and the country. If it hadn’t been the sex, her rebellion would have burst out somewhere else.

The novel is structured as a journey, as Hannah experiences — then rejects — the rehabilitation required by her society. When She Woke is so episodic that I wonder if Jordan didn’t even have a quirky version of Pilgrim’s Progress in mind. There’s a strong sense of movement, both physical and emotional; the drawback for me is that as Hannah passes through situations, she discards characters. Her family; her fellow Chromes in rehab; even her one plucky friend Kayla fall away as Hannah keeps moving forward — to Canada! Naturally! Our broad-minded border country still looms as a haven! I’m also of two minds about the love interest — Jordan keeps the novel in Hannah’s consciousness, so we see her longing for him, but, well, I didn’t think he was worthy of her.

Yet you couldn’t tear the book away from me. When I wasn’t reading it, I wanted to get back to it. Maybe a contradiction in terms, but When She Woke is a dystopian page-turner.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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7 Responses to Hillary Jordan, “When She Woke”

  1. Anbolyn says:

    I just finished this yesterday and felt the same way you did – it’s very, very addicting! I haven’t been wrapped up in a novel this way in quite a while and it is always such a pleasure to encounter a great story. I also felt Aidan Dale was icky and I’m not sure what Hannah saw in him and I was also sad that her family fell by the wayside because I loved her dad and wanted to read more about their relationship. All in all, a fantastic read!

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, hi, Anbolyn! So nice to hear from you! Isn’t it amazing the way Jordan does that? I was a little confused when Hannah and Aidan got together again at the end because he was obviously a bad actor (wasn’t it great the way Jordan conveyed that from Hannah’s deluded point of view?) and I didn’t really see the point. But boy, I just whisked through this. A terrific read!

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  3. kathy lord says:

    i kept thinking about the novel, “A Handmaid’s Tale” as i read this. this futuristic setting & the idea of chromes is interesting. still people are people. hannah was naive in the art of love & aiden came along at the right time taking advantage of her. i think that’s the point. she was young & inexperienced. especially given her religious strictures, she did not understand those who would manipulate for their own gain. i felt hopeful when she was able to cross the frontier into canada. a new start with more life experience behind her to hopefully make better choices & enjoy her new life. her character grew & learned which i liked. i too agree with the other respondent (anbolyn) that her dad was by the wayside so to speak. he was such a loving father & did his best. the mother… hmmm. the sister sounds like she will have a tough road unless she wises up. the characters had their flaws & weaknesses. i do like that hannah had that inner core of strength & hope.

    • carolwallace says:

      I’ve never read Atwood, Kathy, but I see what you mean about the similarities. I liked the way Jordan managed to convey Hannah’s naive quality indirectly, by keeping really close to Hannah’s own experience. In a way we live Hannah’s dilemma, which gives the novel that much more power. Thanks for your views!

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