When She Woke- Hillary Jordan

Hannah Payne wakes up in a jail cell with her skin dyed bright red– the punishment for murder.  Hannah’s crime?  Having an abortion and refusing to name the father of her child.  Hannah begins a journey of self-discovery and forgiveness as she learns to navigate in a world that stigmatizes her for her actions at the same time she loses her family, her faith, and her true love.

I was really excited to read this book as it sounded right up my alley.  A retelling of The Scarlet Letter?  A dystopian world where abortion is illegal and evangelical Christianity controls the government?  A book set in the town I live in?  Women’s issues?  Seriously, I thought this was a slam-dunk for me… however, I was mostly disappointed.  I think ultimately the book deals with important and interesting issues, but was not executed to my satisfaction.

First of all, the world that Hannah lives in is a not-so-distant future in which the United States has recently suffered and recovered from a plague of some sort of STD which rendered many sufferers sterile.  The fear of population and morality loss due to this plague allows evangelical Christians to assume political power and cultural hegemony, resulting in the outlawing of abortion.  The “chroming” (skin-dying) as punishment comes about because of the overcrowding and underfunding of prisons.  I guess this is an interesting explanation for Hannah’s crime and punishment, but I didn’t need a back story to believe that abortion had been outlawed in the United States or that criminals are stigmatized and relegated to the margins of society.  I guess it was nice that the author tried to create a bridge between how we got from where we are now to where the US is in her book, but a lot of the world-building made this future seem more distant and foreign to me.  I think it would have been harder-hitting if there wasn’t so much distance between Hannah’s world and our own.

That said, this book was mostly set in the Dallas area and that is where I live, so there was some personal resonance because of the setting.  In a way, it hit me harder to see that Hannah was in places I know, ordering pizza from a restaurant I frequent, and driving down the same freeways I do.  At the same time, though, I was a little confused about this future.  If so much had changed and presumably so much time has passed, why were the roads and restaurants and town names still the same?  I guess when I would hit details of places I recognized, it took me out of the story some.  On a side note, I vaguely remember discussing verisimilitude along with The Scarlet Letter in high school, so I am wondering if Jordan intentionally used these details to heighten the sense of reality of her narrative and to parallel Hawthorne’s work.

Setting and world-building aside, I had a hard time connecting with Jordan’s characters, too.  Hannah’s struggles were upsetting to see, especially in regards to the violence she is subjected to as a “fallen” woman.  But I didn’t understand a lot of her motivations… she is still desperately in love with Aidan, the father of her baby, even though he’s done nothing love-worthy and seems more like a cardboard cut-out than a human being.  Her crisis in faith seems very easily resolved, when I think it would be a much more dramatic and difficult issue for her.  I also had a really hard time understanding her attachments to a fellow chrome friend, Kayla, and to her revolutionary kidnappers.  Hannah’s character really needed to make more sense for this story to be pulled off.

What I did like in this book was its honest portrayal of both sides of the abortion war as flawed.  The establishment, religion, and government are clearly invading Hannah’s right to privacy and limiting her ability to choose what her life looks like.  At the same time, however, the underground pro-choice group, the Novemberists, is violent and doesn’t seem to have much respect for human life if it gets in the way of their mission.  Basically– both sides are ugly and don’t respect individual rights because they are too caught up in executing their vision of a perfect world.

Finally, I need to address a scene in this book that really bothered me.  Hannah has a lesbian experience with one of the Novemberists, Simone.  Hannah actively disliked Simone until her feelings suddenly change and she desires Simone.  Also, Simone refuses Hannah’s advances at first, repeatedly saying “no” and “stop” and “this is not a good idea,” but Hannah continues despite Simone’s protestations.  I think the author intends for the sex scene to be an empowering moment for Hannah, but I can’t think of anything further from empowering than sex that is coerced and not wanted by the other partner (even though Simone is seduced by Hannah and submits willingly in the end, it still seems coerced to me to have her say “no” to Hannah’s initial moves and not have her wishes respected).  This isn’t sexual liberation or the development of a healthy idea of sex… it is pretty much an endorsement of rape culture.

I am a bit conflicted about whether or not to recommend this book… it brings up a lot of important issues and offers many topics for discussion.  I was very interested in it, even while reading it.  However, there are some serious flaws in both the execution and in terms of the message sent about what healthy sex is.  I think I wish someone else had written this book with the same premise and had actually been successful at it.  All in all, I’m glad I didn’t buy this book when it first came out, like I almost did last year.  I think you might be better off looking for another book that deals with similar themes (maybe Unwind) than bothering with this one.

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6 thoughts on “When She Woke- Hillary Jordan

  1. I felt the same way about that scene as well. It’s been a year since I read it, but I still remember being like, “what the…”

    I thought this book was interesting, but not amazing. I bought it when it was a dollar or two for kindle and I’m glad I didn’t spend more.

  2. THis is one of the first books I bought when I got my Kindle Fire. I listened to an interview with the author on NPR and knew I had to read it. I real enjoyed it, though it really pushed my comfort zone at the time. I think a lot of the issues you pointed out bothered me, too, but i would definitely recommend it.

    • I liked the idea of this book so much, but really don’t think the story was executed as well as it could have been… to the detriment of some of the ideas she was trying to put across. I dunno… I had pretty high expectations for it, since I’d heard good things about it, so maybe I was expecting too much? I’m glad you were able to come away with something good from it, though!

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