You might remember ALL the gushing I did over Hillary Jordan's Bellweather Prize-winning novel, Mudbound. It was one of my favorite books of 2013, so I was thrilled when my book club chose When She Woke for our June meeting.
Set in a future when Roe vs. Wade has been overturned and the government has a stronger hold on the populace, Hannah Payne commits the crime of abortion and chooses to protect the father's identity for love and for his reputation. Her punishment is to be "chromed"--her skin turned red by an injected virus--and imprisoned for 30 days and televised around the country for whomever wants to watch her suffer. Upon leaving prison, it's a new world for Hannah...a God-fearing Texas girl who has to find a way to navigate what has suddenly become a very dangerous life. Her fundamentalist brother-in-law is thirsty for blood, but the world holds a lot more in store for Hannah. She is committed to a fanatical rehabilitation center and later falls in with a terrorist group who have created an underground railroad of sorts for Chromes.
This is a really imaginative, often bleak novel about faith and ideology, governmental control, lack of privacy, Othering, and the arbitrariness of skin color. It's also a futuristic, dystopian re-imagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.
After reading Mudbound, which is about the relationship between a white family and a black family set in America's sharecropping days, I was really taken with the idea that Jordan's newer book is so wildly different in premise and scope. While they are drastically different settings, they are equally well-imagined.
While I found the writing in this book more stilted and less poetic than Mudbound, I think it's a purposeful authorial choice which fits the setting of the novel as well as the main character's upbringing. Hannah is raised in a devout Christian family, they attend a mega-church (seemingly based on a real one in Plano, Texas), and she spends her life being a pious girl who would never consider doing anything to disgrace her family or her God. The decisions Hannah makes take her in a direction no one imagined for her and that she certainly couldn't have imagined for herself. But it is the difficult choices that lead to her self-discovery. After prison, living as a Chrome, she truly finds agency.
This book is set in the area of Texas where I live, around Dallas, which is truly just icing on the cake for me. Books are hardly EVER set here. Jordan does a lot of location name-dropping, which would probably seem superfluous for most readers, but which really did drive home Jordan's cultural critique of this area of the United States and its religious and legal strongholds.
When She Woke had big shoes to fill, but it did not disappoint. I can't wait to discuss this one with my book club!
Pub. Date: September 2012
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: Bought it!