A few summers ago, I read a novel about a young woman who moves to a farm in the south with her family and is caught off guard by the grueling nature of the enterprise. She is shaken by the heat, the loneliness, and the crags and craters of her emotions. I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed Mudbound and knew I would keep my eyes out for Hillary Jordan’s next publication.
Nevertheless, when Jordan’s second novel was published I was hesitant to bring it home with me. When She Woke takes on the uncertain landscape of the future. I am often deterred by these premises. Maybe this is because Brave New World was spoiled for me by high school, maybe because I prefer to have uncertainties of the present enumerated for me, or maybe I’m just an old crank. Adding to my skepticism was the knowledge that Jordan’s second work modeled itself on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. If there’s something that makes me very nervous, it’s novels based on Classics. Despite my trepidation, there is much to be said for When She Woke.
Jordan imagines a future where criminals are identified by the color of their skin. A virus has been created which alters your DNA and turns you a color that matches your crime. Green an arsonist, drug dealers blue, etc. Rather than overload the prison system, criminals are allowed into the general population. They serve out their sentence in years as their designated color. Unsurprisingly the Chromes form a new lower class. And as with all things other, they are largely despised and preyed upon.
Jordan’s America is governed by a radical religious right. Abortions are illegal. If caught you are chromed red: murderer.
Hannah Payne, our modern Hester Pryne, is the daughter of intensely religious parents. As a child she is shamed for asking too many questions, wanting to wear pants, sensing there is something out there bigger than her parents’ doctrinal obedience. She never quite fits into the rigid strictures of her world.
Aidan Dale, her married pastor, is her undoing and her love story. Unlike Hester Pryne, Hannah aborts her child, unwilling to bring it into the world they inhabit, unwilling to incriminate her lover.
After Hannah’s chroming and solitary imprisonment she is released into a religious halfway house for chromed women. Cruelty abounds, overseen largely by the proprietor’s wife. Hannah is able to build a deep friendship with another red, Kayla, and together they strike out into their own brave new world; a world full of Klan-like vigilantes and terrorists trying to give victims like Hannah a second chance at life.
Jordan’s future is expertly crafted if not always fully explained. The scenarios and gadgets that fill her novel are probable extensions of current trends: biodiesel cars, restricted personal freedoms, mobile devices called ports that make calls, track your money, your location etc. Jordan’s terrain, technological and political, is familiar enough to be frightening. The roles of religion and freedom are seriously discussed and it isn’t difficult to see how the extremists arrived at their decisions. It’s abundantly clear how hard it is to win those freedoms back.
In the end I felt that Jordan rushed to bring her heroines to a conclusion. Despite deviations in the middle, the story’s arc ended with a scene very close to Hawthorne’s. I found the synchronicity unnecessary, because When She Woke had taken on a strong life of its own. The novel neither reinforced my prejudices about futuristic, classic-based novels, nor assuaged them. I would like to see what Jordan does next.