When She Woke – Hillary Jordan

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When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is probably one of the ‘hottest’ books being hand-sold these days. Published by Algonquin after a large number of other traditional publishers passed on the book [To my great surprise and pleasure, the author, Hillary Jordan has corrected me on this part – other publishers passed over Mudbound, but rather, Algonquin bought When She Woke upon first showing. Whoever was responsible for this acquisition should be promoted at Algonquin. – (see first comment)], it addresses one of the toughest issues in America today. Books should make you think, and even with this adage in place, too many books have been published about nothing at all. This is not an issue with When She Woke. One of the most volatile issues in the current state of our world is that of abortion. Throw in a second issue that is no less incendiary in that of the separation of religion and government, and even a third issue with the topic of capital punishment and the criminal justice system. Blend with a plot alluding to racism and the Underground Railroad and you’ve got a strange amalgam of concepts that have somehow been interwoven into a stunning story by Hillary Jordan.

The protagonist, Hannah Payne has been convinced of murder in Texas for having an abortion. Her sentence is to undergo a dyeing process known as ‘melachroming’. The convicted criminal has their skin altered to match the type of crime they committed. Murderers are chromed as Reds. Lesser crimes are chromed to different colors matching the general category they’ve been placed upon the color wheel. And the use of the red chroming color leads us to a general allusion to The Scarlet Letter, and also produces a distinctive and striking cover image that summarizes the book’s entire plot within a single image.

The dye isn’t fully permanent, and to prevent tampering with the dye itself, the scientists have combined it with a virus that causes a criminal to slowly go insane if they don’t get periodic re-injections of the dye, which allows the government to keep track of the criminals. All of these technical details are presented rather off-handly, as the novel focuses on the story and the general concepts without delving whatsoever into any actual science. We’re provided with this information so we don’t wonder why ‘Chromes’ don’t just wander off on their own. After melachroming was introduced, the prison system was almost eliminated by allowing the Chromes to reintegrate into society instead of being held in prisons.

Colorism is in full-swing, and in some cases it is justified, but for other cases, it may not be. There is no difference between a serial killer and a woman who has had an abortion. They are both chromed as Reds. There are no hues. And Chromes are pretty much given no opportunities, live in slums, shunned, and abused in general. Even extreme religious groups hunt down Chromes to murder and victimize them. All of this takes place a few decades in the future, yet it repeats the history of the Jim Crow South during the early 20th century. Jordan goes a few steps beyond what Orwell did with Animal Farm to represent the Russian Revolution, making me wonder if the entire novel was written as a plea not to repeat history.

Nothing really befalls the man if the woman has an abortion. Only the woman is Chromed. Maybe the man is shunned and ostracized as well, but he won’t be Chromed. Sexism is alive and prevalent, perhaps more so in this futuristic society due to the amount of abuse that can be piled upon Chromed females. Exploitation and other atrocities frequently occur on an ongoing basis. The only option for females that have been Chromed red for abortion are to get assistance from radicals or from an underground society that has built a sort of underground railroad to Quebec, the last bastion of freedom. Other countries have generally shunned the USA’s melachroming practices, but Quebec is the closest country that offers both amnesty and a rumored reversal of melachroming.

There are other underlying plots added to this tangled web that help make When She Woke a delicious read. The storylines combine and enhance each other to create a wonderful story that kept me turning the pages until I finally finished the book. It’s probably best if you have some background in the American South and American History to appreciate all the allusions and metaphors that have been sprinkled across the book as literary garnishments to a seven course meal that leaves you feeling satisfied with your time well spent.

After having read When She Woke, I can understand why so many publishers passed on publishing Jordan’s book, because as good as it is [that is, if they had seen the manuscript and passed over it], the society described in it hits a little bit too close to home. Just witness the hypocrisy and Tebowmania that manage to co-exist hand-in-hand today. It’s one thing to hold up Tebow as a paragon of Christianity without examining what he actually stands for. The evangelical movement doesn’t belong to any specific creed or organization. So in general, this brand of Christianity can generate anything from the most pious of worshipers, to mega-churches, to cults, and yes, even to warmongers.

Blind faith is required in religion. Blindly supporting humans is not (certain personality cults excluded). And living an unexamined life is akin to not living at all in my opinion. This sort of situation also arises in When I Woke, with religious offshoots. Even some of the hate groups in history have been based on religion, so this is on-topic and something that can actually occur. All in all, When She Woke is certainly a difficult novel that doesn’t advocate one position over another, but merely comments about what may occur when choice has been revoked, and of the integration of government and religion. I don’t think that the book itself advocates abortion, especially when there’s several scenes about the regret of some women that have undergone the procedure. Removing choice from someone else based on your own beliefs that they may not share is not essentially correct.

One note I’d like to make is that a nuance was made in the book that may have been intentionally added to lessen any backlash – all abortion has been banned. Including ones where the mother’s life is in grave danger, incest, rape, and pretty much every other “situation” that some pro-life supporters concede as being acceptable. It certainly helps the book’s comparison to a totalitarian society based on a single religious viewpoint.

Overall Grade – A

Edition: Algonquin Books (October, 2011) – 1st ed.
ISBN: 1565126297
Binding: Hardcover with dust jacket
Page Count: 352
Paper Quality: Matte, trimmed (excellent)
Original Language: English
Other Notes: Also available in a Kindle edition, paperback* (September 18, 2012), and Audio CD.

The current Hardcover edition (1st ed.) appears to be reduced to bargain prices on Amazon for the time being (March, 2012). This is likely an indicator of a new hardcover edition to be released later at some point, especially with the paperback edition slated for a September release.

4 thoughts on “When She Woke – Hillary Jordan

  1. Hillary

    Hi and thanks for the thoughtful (and enthusiastic!) review. I wish to make one correction: WSW was not passed on by other publishers; in fact no other publisher even saw the manuscript. Algonquin bought it, and my unknown third novel, in summer of 2008 based on 60 pp., which was all I had at the time. However other publishers did pass on MUDBOUND before Algonquin acquired it.

    All best,

    1. Nick Post author

      Ms. Jordan,

      Thank you for commenting and providing me with a correction to my blog post. I’ve made the requested correction on the post itself, and thank you very much for writing When She Woke! I look forward to reading Mudbound and the forthcoming third novel of yours.


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