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