Wednesday, June 18, 2014

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

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
Publisher: Algonquin
Format: Trade Paperback
ISBN: 1616201932
Source: Bought it! 



33 comments:

  1. Mudbound was one of my favorites a few years ago, too. I haven't read this, but am impressed that it is SO different in both style and content.

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    1. Wasn't it great? I was impressed with the large difference, too. That almost makes me feel guilty for assuming an author won't usually make SUCH a bit jump, but most don't. Or many don't.

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  2. I listened to this one on audio a few months back and am still thinking about it! Hannah was such a unique character, and my heart just often broke for her. But watching her develop and harden was actually satisfying, as I wanted her to have some sense of independence and strength. The America here was pretty scary . . . mostly because, with time, I could see elements of it certainly developing. Glad you liked it, too! Will have to seek out Mudbound.

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    1. She really was, wasn't she? And I thought her friendship with Kayla would be really cheesy when it all started, but I ended up really liking that aspect of the book. And I'm with you...I could definitely see some of the elements of this book coming to fruition.

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  3. I've been wanting to read this for a while so I'm glad to see it didn't disappoint!

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  4. I LOVE when a book is set in a town near me...or even in my state! I just finished one that was set in Wisconsin and I was giddy throughout, lol. I'm glad you liked this one so much!

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    1. Me too! The only other time I've seen my area mentioned in a book was The Passage. OH, and I read Ruby, by Cynthia Bond, and it was set in east Texas as well. All the really bad stuff happens here...according to these books. LOL

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  5. I couldn't bear to finish Mudbound -- all the brutality against the black families was just too ugly for me -- but I thought Jordan's writing was terrific. I didn't know (or knew, and had forgotten) that this was a retelling of The Scarlet Letter. Sounds really interesting!

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    1. It actually ended on a hopeful note. What happened was brutal, but definitely some nugget of goodness in there so it wasn't all for shizzle. This one was really good!

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  6. I remember loving this book when I read it years ago. I was interesting in the re-imagining of Scarlet Letter but when I picked it up I was surprised to see how much it deals with Christianity vs. Government.

    Also I love a good bleak books. I'm glad you didn't hate this one.

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    1. Yes!!! That's one of the main examinations, and I really liked that. The fact that it was set in this area of Texas might not have resonated for everyone, but it was a poignant setting for a religion debate. :)

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  7. Oh holy crap this sounds amazing. I need to read this!!! It sounds rather Handmaid's Tale meets Scarlet Letter. Exciting stuff!

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    1. YES! I definitely got Handmaid's Tale vibes while I was reading.

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  8. This sounds fascinating--it would be interesting to pair it with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

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    1. Yep! Definitely an appropriate pairing. That's a book I need to re-read, too.

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  9. I was really into this one when I read it and you're making me want to pick it up again!

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    1. Woooo! I think I'll be re-reading this one and Mudbound one day.

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  10. I loved Mudbound and have been meaning to give this one a read ever since it first came out. Just checked and my library has it on audio, so I'm downloading it right now! Can't wait to listen, especially since I've fallen into a bit of a slump with my audio "reading."

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    1. Yay! I hope this one busts you out of your audio slump, Les!

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  11. If you can't wait to talk about it, then I should read it! Don't you love that kind of book?!

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    1. I do! And there's another coming up that I can't wait to talk about....Ruby by Cynthia Bond. WOW.

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    1. You're always right!

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    2. I like this reputation I'm getting. I feel so powerful.

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  13. I still need to read this one!

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  14. I also read Mudbound and When She Woke...and I was also impressed by how different the two novels were! Can't wait to see what Jordan writes next.

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  15. this was the first book my newest book club started with almost 2 years ago and let me tell you it was a GREAT discussion to kick off our group! So glad you enjoyed it. I haven't read Mudbound yet

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  16. I do remember all of the gushing and I've been meaning to get to this ever since, but haven't done so yet. I'm glad to hear that it lived up to the hype for you!

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  17. HOW HAVE I MISSED THIS ONE?! This sounds just light enough to read during bar prep. :D

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  18. Loved loved loved this book. Also scared me to death because I could see it happening in this country- if not in the same way then some other way to mark women. I think it will be an amazing book discussion!

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  19. I listened to this on tape ages ago, listen to me..."tape", I mean cd...and it was so engrossing. What a good comparison to think of one's shame as the color red. Yet this character was quite brave, and as I recall, I liked her very much.

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    1. I started listening to the audio on Friday and was immediately drawn into the narrative. Yesterday, I went for a 4-mile walk just so I could listen to the book uninterrupted for an hour. The reader is excellent!

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