When She Woke

By Hillary Jordan


October 2011

Reviewed by Vanessa Blakeslee


In her second novel, When She Woke, Hillary Jordan tells the tale of Hannah Payne, a young woman sentenced to be "chromed" by a Texas court after she is discovered to have undergone an abortion. The opening chapter brings to mind Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale more so than The Scarlet Letter, despite the quote from Hawthorne's classic preceding the narrative. To be "chromed" means to have one's skin tinted red by an injected virus; "She'd known what to expect—she'd seen Reds many times before, of course, on the street and on the vid—but still, she wasn't prepared for the sight of her own changed flesh." This is how Hannah is to meet her punishment in a post-Roe vs. Wade United States: to try and survive as a "Red" in a society which deems her an outcast, where ultra-conservative vigilant groups like the Fist—to which her brother-in-law belongs—will try and kill her.

The similarities to Atwood's modern classic as well as the more overt homage to Hawthorne (Hannah Payne as Hester Prynne, her tormented lover, the charismatic mega-church leader Reverend Aiden Dale, a dead-ringer for Arthur Dimmesdale) quickly fall away, however, as the plot takes on a life of its own. Upon Hannah's release, she is checked into a half-way house run by zealous fundamentalists, where she befriends a fellow Red, Kayla. The two escape, and are almost captured and killed by Fists but are saved by the Novembrists, a "terrorist" group of feminists who smuggle Reds to Canada for "de-Chroming" via a network akin to the Underground Railroad. Jordan supplies the reader with just enough facts about this skewed, theocratic United States to keep one intrigued and not overwhelmed or confused—a tricky task in crafting a believable futuristic reality.

Jordan's portrayal of her heroine is not without flaws. While Hannah is rendered with psychological depth, poses rhetorical questions about her past and current predicament as she encounters the greater world beyond her narrow religious upbringing, and arrives at much-needed insights, at times I found myself skeptical of the timing of particular musings in regard to the action. For instance, when Hannah first arrives at the rehabilitation center after undergoing the Chroming and a month in isolation, Jordan writes, "Was it possible, Hannah wondered, that God was not lost to her after all?" I wasn't entirely convinced that Hannah would be so eagerly seeking to rekindle a relationship with a God whose followers have just inflicted upon her such a violating procedure. However, the cast of characters and Hannah herself come alive as plausible, compelling individuals, able to crack a joke in the midst of despairing circumstance and for the most part, rise to the occasion. I was especially pleased when she stands up to a fundamentalist "Enlightener" who is bullying another woman who had an abortion, and found myself cheering her on, grateful to have a protagonist capable of rooting for: "'What kind of monster are you, to treat her like that?' she cried. 'Do you honestly think God would approve of what you just did, do you think He's up in Heaven right now, saying 'Good job, way to torture that poor woman'?'" That Hannah decides to leave the center immediately following the confrontation plays as a logical, inevitable turn.

While there is plenty of complexity at work in this novel, Jordan's occasional squeamishness at the playing out of physically brutal confrontations results in missed opportunities. We are left shielded from that ugliness, something that might have revealed an important dimension of this society. Yet, for the most part, these flaws remain small in light of the book's many redeeming qualities. Numerous lines are pitch-perfect in imagery and tone: "Not so long ago, she too would have turned to God for help as a matter of course, would have believed without question that He was interested enough in her one small life to intervene in it. She probed the place within herself where He used to reside and found an empty, ragged socket." Hannah's clear-eyed narration contains flashes of lyricism which seem natural to her own language and personality: "Was this her future then, to sit on public benches, shoveling food in her mouth like a starving animal and waiting for some violence to befall her?" In places such as these I was completely under Jordan's spell. So, too, the hostile landscape of this future Texas looms at every twist and turn, in deft details that magnify Hannah's predicament to include others who have been punished like her—in signs such as the one above the McDonald's which reads, "CHROMES MUST USE DRIVE-THRU." A supreme delight of speculative fiction lies in how an author paints her strange world, its "ports" and hologram "vids," and When She Woke doesn't disappoint. 

Jordan has a talent for choosing an intriguing premise and spinning a storyline in vivid, engaging prose, and I look forward to reading more by her. The novel accomplishes what dystopic fiction does best—speculates on where the United States might be headed politically by playing out logical possibilities based on current trends, through the vibrant, resonating mode of storytelling. With Mississippi's recent vote on Initiative 26 and other "personhood" amendments to appear on more state ballots this year, such a future may be closer than we think.