Review of “When She Woke” by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke updates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 romantic novel Scarlet Letter about a young woman in 17th Century Puritan Boston who becomes pregnant by a married man. She is punished for her sin by the mandate that she wear a large scarlet A (for adultery) on her clothes, so that she will always be identified and stigmatized as a sinner. Jordan not only moves the story up to the future, but extends the shameful scarlet stigma: in this dystopian theocratic world of the future, a big red letter out of cloth is insufficient. Authorities turn the entire body red through the injection of a virus as part of the “melachroming” punishment to which criminals are subjected. (Different colors are used depending on the crime committed.)

Hannah Payne (similar to Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne) got pregnant by a married man, whose identity she refuses to divulge, even though it would mitigate her punishment. Although Hester in The Scarlet Letter, has her baby – a daughter she names Pearl, Hannah in this book aborts hers, and later imagines it was a daughter named Pearl. (There are many, many other parallels. For example, the eloquent minister who impregnated Hester was named Arthur Dimmesdale. Likewise, Hannah is made pregnant by the inspirational minister Aidan Dale.) Hannah is chromed because of having the abortion, which is considered to be murder. The coloring will not be reversed for sixteen years.

Hannah soon discovers that as a marked woman, she is open season for all sorts of potential abuse, particularly rape, but not excluding murder. A secretive vigilante group calling itself the Fist of Christ wants to “get rid of the garbage” in society. But another secret group, The Novembrists, endeavors to help women who have had abortions escape to Canada where they can have the chroming reversed and possibly live normal lives again.

Hannah has mixed feelings about The Novembrists. As much as she needs their help, she also needs to rethink the religious dictates with which she has been indoctrinated and which lead her to despise herself for her sins, She also must overcome the feelings she still has for her secret lover, before she is able to transcend her past and start her life over.

Discussion: The subjects tackled in this book are quite timely, as they extend the fears that often characterize current political discussions. The story begins in Texas where evangelicals have de facto rule of the hearts and minds of citizens, and resistance to their power is punished, both formally and informally, with a vengeance. This theocracy, which extends over most of the American states, has the harshest repercussions for women, who are exhorted to obey men, stifle their own wants and needs, and relinquish many of the rights and freedoms that men are still able to enjoy.

Hannah gradually is exposed to new ideas as the book progresses and starts to question her previous beliefs, but only to a point. In some ways her “enlightenment” seems no more meaningful than when a person goes off a diet and suddenly feels free to try every piece of candy in the Halloween stash. What happens after the binge? It was disappointing to me that Hannah’s change wasn’t less superficial, but I suppose in real life such a radical transformation as Hannah had to undergo would take a lot of time as well. And how far it eventually goes isn’t clearly set out by the author; it is up to the reader to decide.

Evaluation: There are lots of interesting issues in this book, and I like the concept. Still, I give the vote to Hawthorne for the better execution.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2011

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34 Responses to Review of “When She Woke” by Hillary Jordan

  1. Nymeth says:

    A fascinating premise for sure, and I like that it engages with such current political debates.

  2. I hadn’t realized this one was based on Hester from The Scarlet Letter – interesting premise for sure. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. I’d like ti try it, just not sure when:(

    Hope u have a great week!

  3. Beth F says:

    I read the book slightly differently — Hannah as Everywoman rather than Hannah as a single person, so I was not disappointed.

  4. Amanda says:

    I’ve got this one on the hold list from the library and am not sure if it will feel like all other dystopias or if it’ll be unique. I guess we’ll see?

  5. I’m probably opening myself up to some stone throwing but I do not care for The Scarlet Letter. Dystopian is not my favorite either so I think I’ll pass on this one.

  6. I have this one on the TBR mountain. I have never read The Scarlet Letter (probably should) but I am also looking forward to giving this one a try.

  7. zibilee says:

    I have been eager to read this one, and had been hoping to read The Scarlett Letter beforehand to compare the two. It does sound like a very interesting take on Hawthorne’s book, but from what you say, it seems like it wasn’t unilaterally successful. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one.

  8. Athira says:

    That must be one colorful dystopian world! I haven’t read Scarlet Letter, probably should soon. But I do want to read this one either way.

  9. I wonder how the politics of the US would change if we didn’t have the more liberal Canada in the backs of our minds as a place to escape to/fall back on. Most of the US-based dystopias I’ve read or watched involve characters attempting to flee to Canada, where the quality of life is still high and the policies still enlightened (or even more enlightened than at present). The folks I know who have actually moved to Canada have been a little surprised to learn that they have social problems there, too.

    Anyway, an interesting choice of novel to update, The Scarlet Letter.

  10. Jenny says:

    I just finished this and really liked it! I agree Hannah’s growth wasn’t big. I didn’t even think about the fact of her growth or not until I read your review. For me the story was more about the world itself. I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and liked it but didn’t remember anything about it so I missed out on those parallels!

  11. sandynawrot says:

    I haven’t read The Scarlett Letter, so maybe I will dumbly work my way through this one and have no baggage to carry with me. I do have it – got it at SIBA (signed!) and would like to put it on our ALL auction, so I need to be getting to it.

  12. It’s been many years since I read The Scarlet Letter so I don’t know whether I’ll notice all but the most obvious connections. I hope to read this one soon; it sounds like a good one for discussions!

  13. Ti says:

    I loved The Scarlet Letter when I read it for college. I’m not sure I’d like this retelling of it. I know it’s not a literal retelling, but you know what I mean.

    Seems like there would be tons to discuss though. Women always get the bad reputation when the philandering husband gets off so easy.

  14. I have yet to read this partially because I’m a bit worried that I liked the original so much that I’ll find all sorts of fault with this one.

  15. Barbara says:

    I elect to just be happy with The Scarlet Letter. I really liked it.

  16. Aarti says:

    Wow, before reading this review, I had NO IDEA that this book was a retelling of The Scarlet Letter. Thanks for making that clear to me 😉 I like that the book deals with contemporary issues in a historical setting- I always love that! I think that’s why I adore Terry Pratchett (*ahem*).

  17. This book doesn’t seem to be living up to all the buzz it received. 😦

  18. stacybuckeye says:

    I didn’t realize how closely it parallelled The Scarlet Letter. It’s hard when it’s so close to a classic that the comparisons will almost always favor the classic. I admit, I’m intrigued. I liked the other Jill’s review of this one as well.

  19. I just don’t know how I feel about this one. Sometimes I want to read it while other days I’m like..no way!

  20. I am anxious to read this one. It sounds like there is quite a lot to digest.

  21. Julie P. says:

    This book definitely has captured my interest. I’ve enjoyed seeing all of the different reviews.

  22. Vasilly says:

    Great review. I rushed and checked this book out earlier this month but I doubt I’ll get to it anytime soon.

  23. Trisha says:

    I’ve heard about this book so very much, and yet I just can’t decide if I want to read it or not! Maybe if I just happen upon the book sometime.

  24. Jenners says:

    I’ve been on the fence about reading this. It sounds like it might be one of those books where the idea of the book is better than the actual book.

  25. Kailana says:

    Yes, Hawthorne does do a better job, I agree. There was just something about this book that didn’t work well for me.

  26. Alyce says:

    I thought she did a good job of adapting the Scarlet Letter story, but anytime someone remakes a classic it’s pretty much impossible for it to live up to the original. Taken separately, without comparisons to the Scarlet Letter, I didn’t have as many issues with it, only a few things near the end.

  27. Beth S. says:

    The premise of this book gives me chills. Sounds like a good choice for a book club. Lots of opportunity for discussion and debate.

  28. Steph says:

    I wonder how many other people would give the edge to Hawthorne? 😀 I personally really like The Scarlet Letter, but I didn’t have to read it in highschool and picked it up on my own just a few years ago.

    I haven’t read anything by Jordan, but I think the premise is interesting enough and not an exact replica of the original, so I’ll probably check it out eventually.

  29. Trish says:

    I’ve been seeing SO much buzz for this one on twitter but yours is the first review I’ve read–had now idea it was an updated version of The Scarlett Letter. Can’t say I’m surprised that you note Hawthorne’s execution wins–he truly is a master at spinning a yarn. I’ve still yet to read Mudbound but now that I know the subject I’m definitely more interested in this one than I was!

  30. Margot says:

    I’m so out of it I didn’t know there was hype for this book. It actually sounds interesting as you compared it to Scarlet Letter. I’d like to go back and reread that one again and then maybe this one.

  31. Darlene says:

    It was interesting to see your thoughts on this one. I’m just listening to it on audio right now. I haven’t gotten too far so I’ll have to check back. I’m finding it pretty good so far.

  32. sagustocox says:

    Finally having read this one, I can see we are in agreement!

  33. Chelsea says:

    Hello! I am re-reading The Scarlet Letter right now, I just wanted to clarify that Hester Prynne WAS married when she committed adultery. Her husband actually features as a main character throughout the story and he is the one who sets out to expose Dimmesdale as the father of her illegitimate child. Just a heads up. 🙂

    • Yes, but I think the adultery charge pertained more to Hester’s affair with Dimmesdale, especially since her husband was presumably lost at sea. But I clarified the designation to make it more correct, thanks!

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