When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is not a YA dystopian novel, but is a dystopian book that I think is really good and deserves the attention of a review, so hope that readers will grant me a little leeway.
After reading countless dystopian and apocalyptic books, I am starting to form an opinion that the most disturbing ones are the books about a dystopian society because unlike natural disasters which cannot all be prevented, it’s us, people, who created these controlling societies and systems. The most frightening are the books set in a not too distant future from ours, of which the storyline is extracted from our own current societal ills and news headlines.
I found many parallels in When She Woke to the first ever dystopian novel I read, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I actually read the latter about twenty years ago when the word dystopian was not even in my vocabulary. In fact, I didn’t realize that it was a book genre until just three years ago when I started reading The Hunger Games series which I think really propelled the genre into the mainstream.
Hillary Jordan, like Margaret Atwood, weaves the themes of feminism, religion, fascism and personal choice into the story of Hannah Payne. Raised in a devout family, Hannah has mostly complied with her family and society’s expectations of her role in society. Her one true rebellion are the sumptuous dresses she makes and models to herself in the mirror. During the day she works as a seamstress of modest wedding gowns and later as a church administrator.
Suddenly everything Hillary has been raised to believe is challenged when becomes a Chrome. Chroming is a process of injecting people who have committed crimes with a virus that colors their skin to reflect the nature of their crime, yellow, orange, red and blue. The state has made the argument that this is far more humane than throwing all but the most violent offenders in jail. However, Hannah’s situation as a Red Chrome is far more fraught than Hester Prynne’s in The Scarlet Letter. Shame and humiliation are only the mildest consequences of the chroming process as Chromes find difficulty securing housing, finding jobs and are harassed and sometimes violently attacked by ‘upstanding citizens’ while the public turns a blind eye.
So what crime has Hannah committed that was so heinous as to ruin her life? She had an abortion and refused to name the person who performed the abortion as well as the name of her baby’s father. Obviously, abortion is a highly controversial subject in our society and the book actually represents some of the thinking on both sides of the issue. But this is not a one issue story, the book also deeply examines the role of women, vigilantism, religion and social mores in a way that takes us along with Hannah as she begins to re-examine her own feelings and beliefs. This is the kind of book that will challenge you and leave you with something well after you turn the last page.