At the center of the story in When She Woke is an unmarried young woman raised by a close, conservative family; her sheltered lifestyle does not allow for much learning and exploration. As a result of an affair with an unidentified man, Hannah becomes pregnant and chooses to terminate the pregnancy. Both the affair and the abortion cast a literal shadow upon the woman, and she is found guilty for having the illegal procedure and for not cooperating in naming the father. In order to rehabilitate her, she is sent to a futuristic and cruel camp-like setting in which strict religious authorities attempt to persuade her of her guilt and observe her every move with a ruthless eye bent toward punishment.
This ultramodern tale is a timely and updated version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne was forced to wear a scarlet letter A upon her chest, brandishing her an adulterer and casting her out from civil society. Like Hester, Hannah is visually marked by “chroming”, a process in which her skin is dyed a vibrant shade of red. As a chrome, she can no longer walk down the street without being recognized for her crime. The story not only explores the consequences of her choices, but also how she decides to pursue her future, a future limited by the color of her skin and the surrounding environment. Like Hawthorne before her, author Hillary Jordan explores themes of sin, guilt, and legalism.
Following Hannah’s banishment to the camp, she finds comfort and commonality with a fellow “Red”, a woman who made similar decisions for which she is also being rehabilitated in the camp. Together they begin to take steps toward a healthier and more promising future, but only by risking the relative safety and familiarity of the camp and its inhabitants, both fellow “criminals” and their vindictive caretakers.
When She Woke presents hot topic issues related to women’s health, choice and freedom in a sensitive and yet direct manner. Jordan’s approach to re-telling the Hester Prynne story by placing a like-minded character in a future environment directed by narrow minded and shockingly harsh leadership is compelling. The readers, particularly women of a certain age and liberal persuasion, will immediately engage with Hannah. Regrettably, we do not learn what happens to Hannah’s family or former lover except as implied during the final chapter. Altogether, however, When She Woke is a convincing and interesting read.
Ms. Sara Padilla is a freelance writer and maintains a personal blog on family, health and wellness. She resides in the Pacific Northwest.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Algonquin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.