When She Woke

  • Hillary Jordan
  • Algonquin Books
  • 352 pp.

With themes reminiscent of Orwell and Hawthorne, this unsettlingly realistic novel warns of the need to be wary of oppressive and unjust laws imposed by people in power.

Reviewed by Fatima F. Azam

Hillary Jordan’s latest novel, When She Woke, is nothing short of a revelation about the power of a government to brainwash its people. The novel opens with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: “ ‘Truly, friend, and methinks it must gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness,’ said the townsman, ‘to find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people.’ ” These words describe the cruel and ill-conceived laws that cause Hawthorne’s and Jordan’s protagonists to be singled out and made to suffer for acts that their close-minded communities believe are illegal and immoral. Both women commit adultery (though Hannah’s subsequent abortion is what leads to her sentencing), and both are summarily punished in a public manner with society’s approval.

However, in Jordan’s novel, the main protagonist, Hannah, grows from a weak vulnerable girl to a strong, fearless woman. Initially she accepts her punishment without a murmur. The married and prominent religious leader who gets her pregnant suffers no consequences. She loves him, deeply, but as she matures her love diminishes. Eventually she turns away from him though he promises to divorce his wife. He consequently draws on Hannah’s strength and finds the courage to expose his crimes to the world. Now he becomes the iniquitous man receiving punishment. Are the readers to become the detested townspeople if they rejoice in his disgrace? The dilemma is intriguing, and Jordan provides no clear resolution.

Yet this book is much more than a modern reworking of Hawthorne’s classic tale. While the themes of isolation and marking echo Hawthorne, Jordan’s novel more closely resembles George Orwell’s 1984. Like Orwell’s work, When She Woke is ripe with the sense of being under constant surveillance, of people believing without question that what their government tells them, and of those few who have the strength to fight against this oppression. Jordan’s story is set in the not so distant future when electronic devices keep track of everyone, most especially the convicts known as Chromes.

Instead of Hawthorne’s red letter, malefactors are punished by melachroming. A dye is injected into the skin. Its color depends on the severity of the crime — light yellow for petty infractions, purple for murder, blue for rape. Instead of being sentenced to jail, criminals must spend a certain amount of time with their skin a vivid and identifying color. Physically they can move about the world in relative freedom, but they are marked men and women in a very literal sense. Finding a job or even filling up the gas tank can become a painful ordeal. However, the general population and the Chromes consider this to be humane because the government doesn’t have to spend money housing and feeding criminals. With only the most unstable men and women locked in prisons, the money saved allows the government to help the needy across the globe.

The world Jordan creates is far too possible. Not much imagination is needed to picture governments eventually putting into place measures to avoid maintaining overcrowded prisons that drain taxpayers’ money. This is also a world of prurient reality TV. After enduring the process of being chromed, Hannah regains consciousness in a room filled with cameras that provide a live feed to televisions across America, where people can watch her stumble around and observe the flash of emotions as she catches the first glimpse of her chromed body in the mirrors. Her skin is now a bright eye-aching crimson, the color of blood.

Eventually she is released from the room, but the chroming forces her to sever ties with her old life, even her family. She, however, befriends Kayla, a yellow. They meet when her father drops her off at something like a halfway house. Together they escape as the owners keep the girls locked like prisoners instead of providing, as promised, safety and a new life. After leaving, Hannah slowly realizes that the ideas and laws she previously agreed with, even understood, are faulty. When running for her life from a religious group, The Fist, she is saved by a few Novemberists. They are revolutionaries, fighting to help women regain their rights, including their choice to have an abortion. Through them, Hannah slowly comprehends that her punishment may be undeserved, that governments and their laws are not always just. Through Hannah, Jordan subtly and deftly puts the spotlight on officials and individuals, admonishing them for behaving like sheep, allowing other’s ideas and rules to herd them.

Jordan’s unsettlingly realistic novel reads like a documentary on human emotions under stress and a warning about the world’s future direction. When She Woke may be well on its way to becoming a classic, taught alongside Orwell and Hawthorne. These books caution readers to be wary of the world and to fight against oppressive and unjust laws thrust upon them by people in positions of power.

Fatima Azam is a second-year M.A. student at Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland, where she is currently working on her fifth novel and routinely burying herself in the pages of delectable books.

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