by Hillary Jordan
This novel scared the hell out of me. I don’t know if it scared me more as a woman or a Jew, but suffice it to say that Hillary Jordan’s update of The Scarlet Letter set in a near-future when the
is a fundamentalist Christian theocracy touched on my deepest fears. United States
’s novel, our Hester Prynne is Hannah Payne. Hannah doesn’t have to wear a scarlet A, it is her skin itself that announces her crime—not just adultery, but murder. She has aborted her unborn fetus, and for that she has been sentenced to live as a “red” for the next 16 years. She is behind bars for only a month, but her skin is dyed a vivid, artificial red for all to see. And the life of a “chrome” out in society is both hard and dangerous. Those fine Christian citizens often take matters of social justice into their own hands. Jordan
Hannah’s formerly sheltered world is quickly turned upside down, and there’s a compelling and fast-paced story at the center of When She Woke that had me reading deep into the night. But there’s a lot more going on within these pages than just the events of the plot. There are several levels of social commentary going on here. Obviously there’s some rather pointed discussion of religion versus secularism and personal rights. But the very fact that criminality is depicted by skin color opens the door to all kinds of racial subtext as well. And certainly there’s much to be said about the role of women in society. Here, for instance, is a quote that jumped out at me:
“’College wasn’t an option for me,’ Hannah said. There’d been no money for it. But even if she’d been able to get money for a scholarship, her parents would have opposed her going. They’d taught her that her highest purpose as a woman, the purpose to which she’d been created, was to get married, be a helpmate to her husband, and raise a family. She had grown up believing that. But sometimes she couldn’t help thinking wistfully about what it would be like to have four years to do nothing but learn.”
This novel pushed a lot of the same fear buttons in me that The Handmaid’s Tale did decades ago. I doubt this novel will become the sort of modern classic that Atwood’s has, but I applaud anyone prepared to foster discussion of difficult and painful ideas in an intelligent forum. Write about this dystopia, talk about this dystopia, so that we don’t have to live it. As Hillary Jordan has illustrated, it’s all too easy to imagine.