When She Woke

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Title: When She Woke
Author: Hillary Jordan
Pages: 352
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!

13 comments:

reviewsbylola said...

I NEED to read this one! I expect to be blown away, so hopefully it lives up to my expectations.

Zibilee said...

I have been so excited about this book, and got the chance to grab a copy at SIBA and hear Jordan speak. She was warm and witty, and I loved what she had to say about the book. I have been thinking about doing a project of reading The Scarlet Letter immediately followed by this book, but don't have any firm plans as of yet. It sounds like this is a great book that gives the reader a lot to think about, and I am really looking forward to seeing what I make of it as well. Very thoughtful and riveting review, Jenny! I enjoyed it!

Ti said...

I think I would probably like this one based on what most reviewers have said about it. I do love the world building aspect of dystopias the most. I wasn't thrilled when I heard this was a nod to The Scarlet Letter though.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Seriously, why have I not downloaded this one yet? I'm way behind with this and need to get on board!

Aarti said...

I only recently realized this book was based on The Scarlet Letter, too- glad I'm not the only one! And, for some reason, I didn't realize it was dystopic until just this review.

bermudaonion said...

I love that there's a lot to talk about in this book. I can't wait to read it!

Anita said...

I have this book on my shelf, and look forward to this one, now just to find the time. Thanks for a wonderful review.

Kari said...

Ick yeah, after your email I considered giving it a chance....but your more in-depth comments confirm my initial thought—this is not my cup of tea. Ha, thanks for the re-confirmation! Glad you enjoyed it, though!

softdrink said...

Much as I loved this book, I had the same thought as you when she made to create the doll...this could be an awful reading experience for anyone who has had an abortion.

Audra said...

Great review -- you covered so much about what I was curious about/interested in this novel. It reminds me a lot of Atwood's The Handmaiden's Tale in that sort of arbitrary/vague/futuristic dystopian way -- but The Scarlet Letter connection didn't occur to me (shamefully!). Sounds fascinating -- especially since it just sucked you in!

Tina said...

Loved your review Jenny. I just got this for review and I thought it was more of a dystopian type novel when I agreed to review it at my blog. Im hoping it isn't a religious stereotype I hate those kind of books....but the thought of being color coded for a specific crime sounds pretty horrifying. Maybe except for child rapists and molesters, our society doesn't do enough to protect children who fall victim to these perverts.

bermudaonion said...

I've seen mixed reviews of this book. I think it suffers when people compare it to The Scarlet Letter. After reading your review, I think I'll love it!

Booksnyc said...

Dystopia is not usually my thing but this one does sound interesting. Have you read her first book - Mudbound? I haven't read either book yet but they both seem to have gotten great reviews!

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