Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

“When she woke, she was red” begins Hillary Jordan’s dystopian novel When She Woke. Readers and critics alike have compared the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). I feel Jordan’s second novel has more in common with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Yet Jordan’s world is all her own as she transports readers into a disturbing future America that is all too horrifyingly plausible.


The world as we know it today does not exist in When She Woke. Separation between church and state has vanished. Doctor-patient confidentiality laws have been abolished. The United States Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade: abortion, in any form, is illegal, but, of course, doctors still secretly perform the outlawed procedure.

A disease has ravaged the country, a very sexist disease as it turns out. A superclap epidemic, known as the Great Scourge, swept the nation, leaving many women infertile. The superclap did not affect men in the same ways in affected women; men were carriers and showed virtually no signs of the sickness. For that reason, life is precious.

The epidemic not only resulted in the illegalization of abortion but the disease also led to the abolition of the death penalty. The United States, in the throes of the Second Great Depression, simply ran out of funds to house the ever-growing prison population.

The solution to the problem was melachroming, or injecting a virus into the body of a convicted criminal which would temporarily change the color of his or skin to reflect his or her crime. The color yellow signified the person had been convicted of a misdemeanor. A blue was a child molester. A red was someone who had been convicted of murder.
This is the world in which we meet Hannah Payne who, interestingly, has the same initials as Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Hannah is a good girl, a church-going girl, who has an affair with famous, handsome, and very married pastor Aidan Dale. Soon, Hannah finds herself pregnant. Because of Aidan’s notoriety, Hannah decides to seek out an abortion.

Literally minutes after she has the procedure, authorities catch Hannah, but she refuses to give them both the name of the abortion doctor and the name of the father. New sanctity of life laws mean Hannah has committed murder and is sentenced to be a red for sixteen years. She will have to undergo routine injections of melachroming every four months or she will experience defragmentation, a horrible, painful side effect of the virus.
After fulfilling her sentence of thirty days in the chrome ward, Hannah is released into the world, released to live the next sixteen years of her life as a red, an outcast. Her father, along with help from the good reverend, arranges for Hannah to live at a half-way house run by a man and his sadistic wife. Hannah leaves there, but not before she meets Kayla, also a red.

Kayla is African-American and shot her step-father for molesting her sister. Let me be clear here: she did not kill him. He dies later, and authorities seek out Kayla once again for his murder. To try her again for the same crime is double jeopardy, but Jordan makes no mention of this fact, leading me to assume the entire Bill of Rights has been abolished.
A group of freedom fighters called the Novemberists come to both Hannah’s and Kayla’s aid. This group promises to get the two safely to the promised land of Canada where they can totally erase the effects of the virus. While on the way to Canada, Hannah and Kayla stop in Mississippi.

Jordan was not born in Mississippi, nor does she have any ties to the state I could find. It is curious, as Mudbound was set in Mississippi. I would love to ask her why she is fond of the setting of my home state.

Mississippi, in Jordan’s creation, is a rich state. Mississippi has so much excess rainfall that it collects the overflow and sells it to other states .

It is in Columbus, Mississippi, that we learn the Novemberists have a traitor in their midst who sells Hannah and Kayla to the highest bidder. The same Novemberist, Simone, who saved them previously rescues Hannah; Kayla was taken, but a newfound love interest goes after her.
Jordan chooses this time to give us a lesbian sex scene between Simone and Hannah. I questioned this scene. Hannah is still in love with Aidan. Furthermore, she is still a “good” girl, god-fearing; being a red does not change that. It is out of character for her to have sex with Simone, not because Simone is a lesbian, but because Hannah would simply not make love with anyone but Aidan at this point. I think a simply thank-you to Simone would have sufficed.
After leaving Mississippi, Hannah drives to Canada, stopping along the way to meet Aidan. I also had a problem with this, yet it does show how impulsive Hannah is by this point, and how desperate she is to see Aidan. Hannah takes a huge risk in contacting him. She risks herself, Aidan, and the entire Novemberist network by contacting him. She is blinded by Aidan, who I saw as terribly flawed, hypocritical, and unlikable.

Does Hannah make it to the promised land? You will have to find that out for yourself.

Jordan’s style is very visual in When She Woke. Colors take on a whole new meaning. She gives a scathing critique on where our country is heading, not only politically but also culturally. While chromes are in the chrome ward, people can watch their daily activities on their ports (think ipads). Talk about reality television at its worst.
Up until the middle of the novel, I assumed all young American women had been brought up similarly to Hannah and her sister. Church, God, sewing, Bible-study. I assumed most did not go to college or have careers outside the home. I assumed most got married young and started having children. This assumption was incorrect. Yet how could a minority of Americans be in control enough to exact the changes Jordan mentions in her novel? It would take a majority. Anyone who spoke out in opposition to the radicalizations was assassinated. I found it odd that Halloween was celebrated in this world and thought it seemed contradictory.
I commend Jordan for her prescience in When She Woke. Her novel describes Dallas and most of Texas as undergoing droughts and massive heatwaves. The situation becomes so dire that Texans can no longer fill their swimming pools. Sound familiar? Texas suffered a horrendous drought this year. I actually read this novel the week the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. I will not comment on his innocence or his guilt in this review.

What I want to say is this: since 1990, more Americans have come out against the death penalty. What is the alternative? Certainly not melachroming.
Hannah might very well be a stereotypical character. After all, it is only when she wakes up red that she becomes interesting. But her story and her struggle is unique and I could not stop reading. Is Jordan describing our future? Let’s hope not.

One thing is certain, though. Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke is dystopian literature at is best and deserves a place next to The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a disturbing tale, but it is, above all, utterly believable and horrifying. When She Woke is an Indie Next pick for October.

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Filed under book review, books, dystopian literature, fiction

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