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When She Woke [Paperback]

Hillary Jordan
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 26 2011

In the mid–21st century, a young woman in Texas awakens to a nightmare: her skin has been genetically altered, turned bright red as punishment for the crime of having an abortion.

Inspired by The Scarlet Letter, When She Woke depicts an American dystopia where terrorist attacks, natural disasters and a pandemic causing infertility have swung the country to the far right, and convicted criminals are “chromed” according to the nature of their crime and then released. A stigmatized woman in a hostile and frightening world, Hannah Payne must seek a path northward to safety. Her perilous journey becomes one of self-discovery and transfiguration as she realizes that faith, love and sexuality are not just political. They’re personal.

Mudbound, Hillary Jordan’s first novel (a national bestseller in the U.S. and the U.K. and a local bestseller in Canada), won the 2006 Bellwether Prize and a 2009 Alex Award from the American Library Association. Longlisted for the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Mudbound was also the 2008 NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association) Fiction Book of the Year. Additionally, it was a Barnes & Noble Discover pick, Borders Original Voices selection, Book Sense Pick and Waterstone’s New Voices pick.


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Review

'Hillary Jordan channels Nathaniel Hawthorne by way of Margaret Atwood in this fast-paced, dystopian thriller. Unputdownable' Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day 'Not only one of the best books of the year, but it's everything the dystopian genre was made for ... An instant classic for the 21st century' Publisher's Weekly 'A stunning futuristic thriller ... the setup in the first part of the book is excellent, very Handmaid's Tale, the second half is a straight chase and escape tale. The whole thing is stunning.' The Bookseller PRAISE FOR HILLARY JORDAN: 'Hillary Jordan writes with the force of a Delta storm' Barbara Kingsolver 'Jordan's tautly structured debut ... confronts disturbing truths about America's past with a directness and a freshness of approach that recalls Alice Walker's The Color Purple.' The Times 'The winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for a novel 'promoting social responsibility,' Hillary Jordan is happily a writer who puts her duty to entertain first' The Independent --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Hillary Jordan received her B.A. in English and political science from Wellesley College and spent fifteen years working as an advertising copywriter before starting to write fiction. She got her M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University. Jordan grew up in Dallas, Texas, and Muskogee, Oklahoma. She lives in New York City. Visit her online at hillaryjordan.com.


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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Jessica Strider TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Pros: intense character development, fascinating - if terrifying - world, positive message at the end, thought provoking

Cons: very dark tone, some disturbing scenes (religious / near violent)

Hannah Payne has been sentenced to 16 years as a Chrome. Her skin has been turned a rich, vibrant red in order to denote her crime of murder, for aborting her child. The scourge that killed many and made women infertile has been cured and the Sanctity Of Life laws mark women like Hannah as outcasts. Her fundamentalist Christian upbringing did not prepare her for forbidden love with a married man or the horrors she would face as a Red. When She Woke is Hannah's story of endurance, enlightenment and ultimately self-empowerment.

As with many dystopian novels, When She Woke is terrifying because in may ways it's easy to see this future coming about. In the book Roe v. Wade is overturned in order to help increase the population, an act some parties in the US are already trying to do, removing women's rights to control their own bodies and their bodies' reproduction. The idea of tracking released criminals is also one close to being realized, with the jump to making such a database open to the public only a small step further.

While based on Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is much darker. While she faces the reproach and repudiation of Christians, she also faces the lechery of those who would take advantage of the downtrodden, and a fundamentalist group the equivalent of the KKK, that targets and kills Chromes.

The book was therefore unsettling on a number of levels. It reads as though it will have an unpleasant and depressing ending, yet at some point Hannah stops letting others decide her path and takes control of her own life.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Pulls you along Dec 19 2013
By nv
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Are you into this new trend in dystopian fiction? When She Woke is a good read, with a believable female protagonist and an interesting plot. I felt that some of the peripheral characters were flat in comparison, but it didn't matter, as so much of my mine was focused on the main character.

Really good! Another great book in the same category is The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT BOOK!!! Nov. 1 2011
By Arielle
Format:Paperback
This was one of the most provocative, well written, modernist books I've read in a LOOOONG TIME!!! I couldn'
t put it down for 2 days, now my aunt has it!!!
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By John Kwok TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
"When She Woke" retains all the subtlety of the atomic bomb exploding above Hiroshima, Japan on the morning of August 6, 1945 in its depiction of a near future United States hostile to female reproductive rights, perfectly illustrating why mainstream writers of literary fiction should refrain from writing science fiction novels unless they devote themselves towards understanding the genre as well as the likes of Jonathan Lethem ("Gun, With Occasional Music", "As She Climbed Across the Table", "Motherless Brooklyn"), Rick Moody ("The Four Fingers of Death") and Gary Shteyngart ("Super Sad True Love Story"). It is an assessment endorsed by a notable cyberpunk science fiction writer, after I told the writer about a Brooklyn Book Festival panel on science fiction featuring as one of the panelists, Hillary Jordan, the novel's author, that I had attended last fall. "When She Woke" updates Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" and pays ample homage to Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", presenting readers with a nightmarish vision of a near future dystopian United States after a worldwide epidemic ("The Scourge") results in widespread female sterility and a limited nuclear war resulting in the Hiroshima-like destruction of Los Angeles, leaving the theocratic-oriented Federal Government no choice but to ban abortion again and treat those receiving it, like protagonist Hannah Payne, as social outcasts and criminals branded as "chromes", condemned to spend years with the color of their skins dyed different colors depending on the severity of their crimes. Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  396 reviews
104 of 121 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simply Red. Aug. 28 2011
By Nicole Del Sesto - Published on Amazon.com
Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Hannah Payne is red.

A conviction of murder in this alternate future earns the convict a red skin tint for the length of their sentence, allowing them to live a public life filled with prejudice and hardship. This sentence unburdens the government of cost and responsibility. There is no separation of church and state. Society has become puritanical.

This book is derivative; not just of "The Scarlet Letter" but of many other dystopian novels. The Handmaid's Tale, Children of Men, We, all come to mind. Though I generally love these kinds of novels, the total lack of originality in this book did drop it a star for me.

Without giving away too much, a major theme in this book is abortion and with a pro-choice slant. I don't think conservative readers will enjoy it much.

The writing was good, the characters interesting, the evolution of Hannah was well-paced. It moved quickly and was generally satisfying. I'm not raving about it, but I enjoyed it, and it has definitely piqued my interest in Mudbound.
110 of 131 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Scarlet Atwood Sept. 14 2011
By Serena Witzke - Published on Amazon.com
Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Summary: Hannah Payne wakes up a vivid shade of red. In the not-so-distant future, this 'chroming' is the punishment for all sorts of crimes, with different colors marking the severity of the transgression. Red is for murder. And in Jordan's dystopian future, most of America is disturbingly Puritanical and abortion is a criminal offense - it's murder, and it is for this crime that Hannah is chromed. By refusing to name the father she has added to her sentence. We soon learn (so this IS NOT a spoiler) that Reverend Dale, her family's pastor, was her lover and the father of her aborted child. The book follows Hannah as she is released from prison and has to cope with living in a world that abuses and discriminates against 'Chromes'. Her journey will cause her to examine her life, her faith, and her love.

Review: As you may have surmised from the summary, this novel is a retelling of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Hannah Payne/Hester Prynne, Reverend Dale/Dimmesdale, etc. The mean-spirited husband of that tale has been swapped for a bigoted brother-in-law, but much of the debate about sin, suffering, and personal faith remain. The setting and general atmosphere, however, are lifted right from Margaret Atwood's heavy-handed dystopian fantasy The Handmaid's Tale. The legal atmosphere of the novel is incredibly misogynistic, the religious right holds the country in a tyrannical grip, and everything from wearing short skirts to questioning male opinions is a sin. Basically, it's your liberal atheist's worst nightmare. Most of the religious figures are incredibly hypocritical and cruel, and the 'good' characters are persecuted by them.

I waver back and forth on my opinion of the messages in this novel. On the one hand, it offers up to the reader questions of sexuality: what is 'good', what is 'bad', is abortion wrong, is pre-marital sex wrong, is adultery wrong...was Hannah wrong? And to the novel's credit, it doesn't attempt to answer these questions for the reader. This make it a good choice for younger teens who may be grappling with variations on these problems. On the other hand, the treatment of religion in this novel seems a bit heavy-handed. Hannah's family are fundamentalists who abandon her after her 'sin' - only her father stands by her, but he is overruled by his wife. The religious boarding house that takes in Hannah after her imprisonment is horrid - the minister, his wife, and their religious 'counselors' are monstrous sadists who take righteous pleasure in tormenting their sinful charges. The religious right has shut down all women's rights and subordinated women to men. To attempt to balance this negative picture of the religious institution, the author has Hannah finding internal peace with God and her faith. She also meets an inspiring female minister at one point in the novel. These positive portrayals of faith, however, are not salient enough to compete with the negative portrayals of faith in the novel, and as a result, some religious readers may feel alienated by the author.

The issue of female authority is ambiguous here too. There are several negative examples of female authority: Hannah's mother overrules her father in accepting their daughter after she has be convicted of aborting her baby, and the minister's wife at the boarding house clearly runs the sadistic show there. But at the same time the female leaders of the liberal rebellion and the female minister are positive female models.

What is Jordan saying about religion? What is she saying about female authority? What is she saying about sexuality? In a novel aimed at adult readers, these questions would be well left ambiguous. Young adults, however, may feel adrift at the end of this tale, with no absolute moral or message to take away.

I rated this novel 3 stars because it began very promisingly, but tapered off. The borrowing from Atwood gave me literary deja vu, and the heavy-handed treatment of religion and conservative politics felt excessive even for this liberal atheist reader. Though the religious message was problematized by the positive aspects of faith, I had the feeling that the author was more confused in her message than deliberately ambiguous.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too much world building, too little plot March 22 2012
By Bookphile - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I recently read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time and, when I finished it, I wondered why it had taken me such a long time to read it. Given today's political climate, the issues dealt with in that book are still so relevant to today's political discourse, so when I saw the synopsis of this book, I thought I'd hit another home run. It seemed to be a cross between The Scarlet Letter (a book that I love) and The Handmaid's Tale, so what could go wrong? Well, in a word, plenty. Spoilers to follow.

First off, this isn't what I would identify as a bad book. The writing is pretty well done, for the most part. The concepts are excellent, particularly the whole idea of Chroming. I found this to be not only an interesting premise, but one that was rather scary because it seems like a possibility. I was very impressed by the depth of the world the author built, at the complicated factions at play here. Jordan has obviously tackled a very ambitious project but the problem is that, while her elements when taken singularly are very intriguing, there are just too many of them all put together. At times, I felt like this book was one of those European tours, where you get off a bus, take a look at a monument, and then get back on the bus so that it can take you to the next monument. It felt like Hannah as moving through the world not so much because the plot required it but because Jordan wanted to highlight certain features of the society she created.

First of all, we have Chroming. This was such a great idea, in theory. I was really curious to find out what life would be like for those who had been Chromed. In fact, I could imagine an entire novel dealing solely with this aspect of the book. It's an excellent way of taking a hard look at the criminal justice system and asking some hard questions about what we really want out of it. Unfortunately, there is no real showing in this book of what the average Chrome goes through. We get bits and pieces of it here and there, as when Hannah is harassed at a gas station, but there is always some plot device swooping in to interrupt the scene. It's not that I was looking for lurid violence, just that I really wanted to examine the psychology of the Chromes and the dehumanizing effect their Chroming had on them. This was such a missed opportunity.

Next up, Hannah heads to a halfway house run by a couple of sadists--particularly the wife--who make Jane Eyre's Aunt Reed look compassionate. Yet this is another part of the book that just feels terribly underdeveloped. The couple running the center would have been an excellent lens for viewing how society functions within Jordan's world, as well as how some people would certainly chafe within its limitations. Instead, the halfway house feels like a plot device. Hannah and her fellow Chromes are treated in a viciously horrible manner, seemingly as a shorthand way of showing the reader how badly society is bound to mistreat them before Hannah and her new friend Kayla are sent off to be pretty much entirely isolated from society for the remainder of the novel. Once again, this is a setting that could have made up an entire novel, much like Offred's story being told through the lens of her servitude to her Commander's family.

Things just continue to go downhill from here, really. By having Hannah and Kayla be taken in by Jordan's equivalent of the Underground Railroad, the two characters become entirely detached from the reality of the world Jordan has so painstakingly created. They spend the bulk of the novel hiding out in one place or another, with their "stops" on the way to Canada just used as more plot devices to give the reader a glimpse of what the society is like. This section of the book really highlights just how disconnected the characters are from the setting, which I found to be a huge disappointment. I went into this novel thinking I'd see how Hannah functions in a world that openly scorns her, but there is really none of that here.

Still, Hannah does have an inner journey of sorts, as she struggles to reconcile her strictly fundamentalist Christian upbringing with her new sense of her world. I think her affair with Simone is meant to illustrate just how much Hannah is breaking away from her former beliefs, but I thought the whole episode felt so contrived. It was probably one of the most egregious plot devices of all. Once Hannah takes off to see Aiden, all of my suspension of disbelief was pretty much out the window. There are far too many coincidences and examples of deus ex machina in this book for me to be able to really buy into it.

As the ending drew nearer, I found myself worrying about the lack of resolution. I don't know why I was surprised to find that it was left wide open for a sequel, but it was. I take that back, I think I was surprised by the ending precisely because I didn't find this book compelling enough to want to pick up a second installment. At the end of the day, it's a pretty classic example of a fantastic concept that just isn't well executed.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Colorful Clunker Aug. 4 2013
By Lennox Ryland - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Readers familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter will have no trouble identifying the parallels in Hillary Jordan's novel about illicit love. In this futuristic version of Hawthorne's morality tale, Hannah Payne becomes the lover of a married man of the cloth. She becomes pregnant, and rather than bearing a child who would incriminate her lover, the widely respected head of the global Church of the Ignited Word and America's Secretary of Faith, Hannah has an abortion.

Abortion is illegal in this dystopia, and those who are convicted of the crime are punished by being injected with viral DNA which turns their skin "the solid, declarative red of a stop sign." Other crimes warrant other colors, but the stigmatized "chromes" become societal outcasts, bearing the signature color of their transgressions for everyone to see.

Blood-red but not bowed, Hannah sets off on a series of adventures that take her from a halfway house whose proprietors try to inculcate in her the puritanical social and religious doctrines espoused by the government (no separation of church and state in this dystopia, nosirree) to an underground railroad implemented by some covert but rebellious and prickly feminists. Along the way, Hannah endures various forms of social ostracism and cruelty, including kidnapping and attempted rape, has a lesbian affair, gains then loses (but will she regain???) a friend who is also chromed, and reunites with Reverend Dale at least long enough to tell him a thing or two about love and truth.

In short, this morality tale is long on political and religious diatribe but short on character development, dialogue, description, and believable plot. It reads like a mutant and shallow version of The Scarlet Letter (or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale) and might have been better suited to the format of a comic book. After all, the colors of the "chromes" and the stereotyped villains against whom Hannah struggles lend themselves to pictorial depiction. In this non-literary format, they might even be entertaining.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Weak dystopian fiction Sept. 7 2013
By Kaitlin Kelly - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
When She Woke is a play on A Scarlet Letter. Jordan attempts to modernize the classic tale by setting her story in the future, in a dystopian world where state-mandated religion governs, convicts ("Chromes") are injected by a virus that turns their bodies a different color, trials are unfair and crime is rampant.

However, aside from the "chrome" aspect of the novel, very little technology or atmosphere is different than today's, rendering the dystopia ineffective. The characters are transparent, each feeling only one emotion. I HATE good guy vs. bad guy stories, where everyone has one trait, the good guys talk like Buddha and the bad guys shout curses. And I know this is YA, but the dialogue sounds like it was written by a child.

Finally, I thought the use of religion and the abortion debate was cheap, regardless of the reader's feelings on those issues. The author just wasn't prepared to treat such important themes gracefully and ended up beating the reader over the head with them.

To those looking for an excellent dystopian novel, I suggest Blindness by Jose Saramago.
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