When She Woke
by Hillary Jordan
2011 • 344 pages • Algonquin Books
What happened to When She Woke? The peculiar pleasures and perils of having such a long reading list (and viewing list and listening list and…) is that by the time I actually get to reading something, I’ve forgotten all about it. But I feel like When She Woke made a very positive splash back in 2011—has it really been three years?—and then vanished. This, in itself, means nothing: our pop culture attention spans have only gotten shorter and shorter, to the point that I initially didn’t watch “Too Many Cooks” because twelve minutes was too long. That’s part of the charm of pop culture—there’s just so much of it that you end up with forgotten treasures squirreled away all over. (The moment I realized that I would never be able to listen to all of the music produced in the eighties was practically a spiritual experience.) Seeing that process in action is just what happens when you pay attention to pop culture.
But When She Woke’s slip into recent, fuzzy memory also has to do with the fact that, from day one, Hillary Jordan made sure that everyone who read it would think of two other novels. In the same way that I half-jokingly refer to Eragon as A New Hope set in Middle-Earth, When She Woke is The Scarlet Letter set in the Republic of Gilead. (All novels are sequels, influence is bliss, et cetera, et cetera, thank you, Michael Chabon.) The high concept pitch has endured the test of time (did you know we don’t know where the term even comes from? Language is magic), but there’s always a danger to the “X meets Y” pitch: if X and Y have stood the test of time, you better hope that XY is good enough—or at least different enough—to make your audience stay and not simply wander back off to X and Y.
When She Woke’s lack of longevity can be attributed to exactly that. The Scarlet Letter is omnipresent, whether you consider it a towering icon of American literature or had to read it in high school, and The Handmaid’s Tale is pressed into eager genre feminists’ hands every day. (I did it, when I was a bookseller. It was my sworn duty.) The XYs of the world need to add something a little different to spice things up and stand out, and Jordan doesn’t particularly do that here. True, Hannah Payne’s story ends much happier than Hester Prynne’s does, and true, her dystopian United States is not as strict as the Republic of Gilead is. But it offers the same messages about how politics supposedly about paternity rights and the sanctity of life usually end up just policing the actual lives and bodies of its people. Women and men alike (there’s no room for a third option in this world) are Chromed—have their skin color artificially changed—to reflect the nature of their crime. Hannah is Chromed Red for the crime of murder, after aborting the baby she conceived by her very married and very publicly religious lover, the Reverend Aidan Dale. At least Jordan addresses how this disproportionately affects people from marginalized groups, largely through the character of Kayla, a friend of Hannah’s.
But When She Woke does do one thing very right—the slow burn of feminist awakening. While Hannah has little love for the evangelical community she grew up, the one that willfully “shielded” her from culture that would have enriched and nourished her, she’s still shocked by the very idea of homosexuality and bristles at feminists, even though a pack of rogue Canadian feminists rescue Hannah and Kayla from the vigilante Fists. As she starts to try and find her way back to Aidan, she starts to come around to it all, even as her views on abortion remain complex and messy. She begins looking out for Kayla, finding her own inner strength, and even briefly has an affair with a woman. By the time she reunites with Aidan, she’s so changed that there is no hope for the two of them. (I mean, not there was much hope in the first place.) With the knowledge she has now, of walking the world as a Red, her only choice is to move on. So many texts simply skip to the already politically awakened character that it’s easy to forget just how important it is to see characters who go through that journey as well.
I rented this book from the public library.