When She Woke--a Timely Rediscovery

When She Woke (2012)
Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books, 341 pp.  ISBN: 9781565126299
* * * ½

This one slid past me when it came out in 2012, but it seems appropriate to revisit it in a political climate in which Tea Party zealots wield inordinate/inappropriate amounts of power. Hillary Jordan imagines a near-future in which conservative Christians gain power and institute a Jesus-centered version of Sharia law.  She updates Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter by replacing Puritans and old-fashioned cruelty with latter-day fundamentalists and high-tech inhumanity. Add a dystopian dollop from The Handmaiden’s Tale and you have a 21st century mash-up novel.

The “Great Scourge,” a virus that renders most women infertile, ushers in the political takeover of the Trinity Party. This band of Texas fundamentalists abolishes Roe v. Wade, clothes motherhood in cult-like garb, and remakes American society as a Biblical theocracy of Old Testament proportions. Theirs is a rigid world that marks all transgressors–literally. Those who stray from the straight and narrow undergo melachroming, a process that dyes their skin hues ranging from yellow to red, depending upon their sins.

Enter Hannah Payne (Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne), a young woman who tries to be a good Christian, but has too many questions and too much of an independent streak to mesh well with evangelical patriarchy. She finds herself attracted to the Rev. Aidan Dale (Arthur Dimmesdale) and nature takes its course. Complications arise when she becomes pregnant; Dale is married, promiscuity is a sin, and social ostracism a very real possibility. Hannah opts for the dangerous course of seeking an illegal abortion knowing that, if discovered, her troubles magnify.

Of course she’s discovered! When Hannah refuses to name the father or the abortionist, she is shipped to a melachroming facility and, when she awakes, she’s scarlet from head to toe. Solitary confinement is followed by a Dickensian stay at Magdalene House, a halfway facility for fallen women designed to impress upon their charges the enormity of their sins, prepare them to be social outcasts, and program them for patriarchal submission.

As you no doubt surmise, that doesn’t go well either. When She Woke becomes a life-on-the-lam tale that includes a shadowy underground movement called the Novembrists, a lesbian affair, a feminist awakening, and a showdown with Dale. It’s not easy being bright red, hence Hannah’s Underground Railroad-like flight (hopefully to freedom in Canada) is fraught with peril, treachery, and routine obstacles than threaten to become major.

This novel is more than a little derivative of not just Hawthorne and Atwood, but also of dozens of other dystopian novels. Jordan acknowledges her sources, so is this homage or literary simulacra?  A bit of both actually. When She Woke is a fast-paced read with lots of thrilling moments, some of which work very well and some of which are for-heaven’s-sake forced. One annoying device is the repeated phrase “It’s personal,” which is used by numerous characters to not explain what they’re doing (or to save it for a big revelation later on). In a similar vein, there are few too many close escapes for believability’s sake and after a while they feel like story padding. Good luck fathoming how Hannah goes from distressed Christian to lesbian lust in a single encounter. And Jordan’s color metaphors strike me as too obvious.

On the other hand, Jordan’s treatment of faith is a plus. Some (who have likely never actually read the book) accused Jordan of belittling Christianity. Far from it. We see Hannah struggle with faith and reject intolerant versions of it, but not to the end you might imagine. Jordan also raises slippery slope questions of intolerance. Where is the line between personal belief and imposed will? How does religious freedom mutate into theocracy? At what things can a person of faith cast a blind eye and what must they condemn/punish?

As a reviewer I am compelled to draw Hawthorne/Atwood parallels; as a reader I’d encourage you to avoid comparisons as much as possible. I doubt When She Woke will become a novel for the ages, but it’s a very entertaining and thought-provoking novel for this age.  Rob Weir

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