When She Woke by Hillary Jordan – Book Review

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Published by Algonquin Books

After The Great Scourge, abortion is considered an especially heinous crime as the country tries to recover its birthrate. Women who get abortions have their skin turned red through the process of melochroming, a sentence that eliminates the need for the government to house the convicted, while still allowing the citizenry to feel safe from criminals. Hannah Payne finds herself a Red after aborting her baby. She would never have done so, but if she had given birth to a child out-of-wedlock, she would have been compelled to name the father, and she simply cannot do that to the man she loves. Naming her child’s father would have destroyed both his personal and public life. Now Hannah must decide what life looks like as the shamed woman she now is.

When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign. -p. 1

If Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale had a slightly futuristic baby, it would be When She Woke. Jordan makes it quite clear that this is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter, not only giving Hannah a situation and name very similar to Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, but when Hannah is compelled to name the baby she would have had, she calls her Pearl, which was Hester’s daughter’s name as well.

Unlike Hawthorne, however, Jordan is not content to deal just in the themes of sin and legalism. Instead, she goes deeper into her protagonist’s life to focus on personal choice, agency, and faith. At one time Hannah was a faithful, Christian girl in a conservative society. After her fall for something that initially seemed so heaven-sent, she has an entirely understandable crisis of faith and must decide whether she and God have abandoned one another, or if she can make sense out of her faith and what her life has become.

While there are some moments of the book that lose steam, the story is an incredibly compelling one overall, and a likely a modern classic in its own right. Highly recommended.

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