Tales from the Nightstand: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers – stern and wild ones – and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.” – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
The most surprising thing about Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke isn’t that it might well be the bastard love child of The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale, their unseemly tryst born from lonely, drunken nights sitting next to one another on the bookshelf. No, the most surprising thing is how nakedly and shamelessly When She Woke makes the claim to be that “happy accident.” It is left to the reader to judge for him or herself whether Jordan’s moral decision to bring the tale to term was worth the price of reading, or if she might have been better off making a different, personal choice early in the first draft.
Am I being too subtle with my abortion imagery?
When She Woke takes place in a speculative America that is remarkably similar to that of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Various forces of history, including a plague of infertility, have transformed the country into a fundamentalist Christian Theocracy. In Jordan’s world, there are hints of a past economic collapse, and a terrorist’s leveling of Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb appears to have helped push the government to the Todd Akins end of the social conservative spectrum. By the time of the events of Jordan’s story the infertility plague has passed, but its Roe v. Wade-crushing effects are still firmly and popularly in place. Parental Rights have been made into law, which dictate (among other things) that a woman must abdicate her child rearing preferences to her child’s biological father. The killing of an unborn child, under any circumstances, is considered murder. (One of the book’s minor characters is serving out a murder sentence for having been at fault in an automobile accident. The person she hits turns out to be pregnant, and although that person herself is fine the accident causes a miscarriage and the murder conviction becomes a fait acompli.)
But for all of the speculative fiction devices that echo The Handmaid’s Tale, it is Jordan’s imagining of the future criminal justice system that calls to mind When She Woke’s dominant genes, those from The Scarlet Letter.
Jordan’s protagonist Hannah Payne, a name clearly meant to parallel Hester Prynne, has been convicted of both aborting her unborn child and refusing to name the father. (And for any reader of The Scarlet Letter, the identity of the father – revealed rather quickly in When She Woke – will come as no surprise.) Because of this conviction she is forcibly “chromed,” a viral skin dying process. The resulting skin color lets society know the nature of your crime. The punishment for murder is being chromed entirely scarlet red, and then being released back into a society where the population is allowed to do with you whatever they wish without fear of reprisal. For more serious crimes like murder, this includes both rape and murder.
The story, as you might guess, is certainly meant to be a feminist, pro-choice cautionary tale, but it accomplishes this with somewhat more evenhandedness than I was expecting. The pro-choice terrorists/revolutionaries that assist Payne can be as vile, violent, and self-serving in the name of political victory as those that conspire to punish Payne’s sins while flaunting their own. The two characters on each side of the battle that the reader might most see as villains turn out, in the end, to be far more complicated – and sympathetic – than one might have expected (or hoped).
The novel works best, however, when it focuses on Payne’s journey through doubt toward self-discovery and a renewed faith. Like Hester Prynne and Handmaid’s Offred, Hannah Payne discovers throughout her trials that she is a person of strength, and Jordan succeeds – mostly – in making that process seem both organic and ultimately triumphant.
Overall Rating: Three out of Five stars
Recommended Reading For: Light beach reading for the feminist minded; people who want to read Ray Bradbury and Naomi Wolf but just can’t find the time to do both; leftists that want their worst suspicions about the right confirmed
Skip it if: You are really, really pro-life; you hated the whole idea of Wicked, Grendel, or any other book that looks to “update” a classic; you don’t like books with endings and plot turns you can see coming a mile away
It’s literary spittin’ distance from: As stated above, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
[Note: I have decided to start doing quick blurb-reviews of books as I finish them, so expect to start seeing more Tales from the Nightstand posts over time. In a perfect world, I’ll post them at least once a week, but since the world ain’t perfect we’ll see how well that actually works out. Insert obligatory “hint, hint” about Tales from the Nightstand Guest Posts here.]