Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Author: Hillary Jordan
Genre: Fiction, Dystopian
Publisher: Algonquin Books (Workman Publishing(
Pub. Date: October 4, 2011
This was one of those books I hadn't necessarily planned on reading right away, but I thought I would read a few pages and then I became totally absorbed in the unique story. When She Woke is inspired by The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and actually liked it, but I really don't remember it enough to make many comparisons between that and this. However, I do feel that despite being inspired by it, When She Woke is definitely something different and unique in its own right.
I don't recall it specifying when, but this book takes place sometime in the future. The U.S. has created a system where only the worst of the worst criminals stay in jail. Instead, others are sentenced to "melachroming" for a certain amount of time in which their entire bodies are turned an entirely different color. The different colors represent different crimes - killers are red, misdemeanor type crimes are blue, drug related offenses yellow, more serious drug related crimes orange, and child molesters are purple. (It's been a little bit since I read this so I could be slightly off). However, the government is also theocratic so crimes are also judged from a religious perspective. Hence, Hannah Payne is sentenced to melachroming (red) for 13 years after she has an abortion. Not only does she have an abortion, but she refuses to name the father of the child. As you might imagine, melachromed individuals, although free, have to deal with a prejudice so intense that they'd probably be better off in jail anyway.
Hannah first spends 30 days in a sort of jail that also doubles as a reality show for the public. That's part of the punishment, although the book doesn't really go into any background information about that. Afterwards, Hannah ends up in a very scary home run by hypocritically religious zealots. She's treated like a prisoner there and has to attend daily sessions of "enlightenment". This part was incredibly creepy and offensive. My thought while reading this was that I would NOT recommend this book to someone who did have an abortion; I imagine that the things purported by some of the characters in the book, specifically during "enlightenment", would be difficult for someone who had this experience to read; it was awful! Whenever Hannah has a reason to think she might be free, something else happens to teach her more about being prejudiced against. She faces constant stares and rebukes by the general population, is refused services at various stores and restaurants, faces physical and sexual attack by others, and is pursued by a violent vigilante group who seeks out melachromed individuals to kill.
The plot continuously moved forward and I was fascinated in learning more about this world so those two things kept me turning the pages. I am not typically into the dystopian genre and I thought this one had the right amount of dystopia mixed with the right amount of contemporary storyline to keep a reader of more mainstream fiction interested. The main draw, I think, with When She Woke was the discussions that could be generated from various aspects of the story. For instance, not only is the government theocratic in nature, but Hannah comes from a type of evangelical religious family. Her mother disowns her for having the abortion, and her sister's husband refuses to allow the two contact. So various issues about religion were brought up. Also, should people who have been committed crimes (I'm NOT talking Hannah but the other actual criminals) be allowed to be free as long as they are very clearly identified as such? And if you do have strong beliefs about any specific morals, what is the best way to teach others about them? And, of course, for those willing to go there, what constitutes a crime in the first place? Just some very interesting things to talk about. Real dystopian lovers might be disappointed at the lack of explanation beneath much of the world building (just based on what I've read other people say in their reviews of dystopians). For me, this book was more about the world itself and the philosophical questions it generated. Race and religion, prejudice and government... it's all there!