When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Algonquin • $24.95 • on sale October 4, 2011
A lot of readers probably have negative associations with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, especially if they were forced to read it in high school. I did have to read it for summer reading, but I actually thought it was a page-turner—definitely one of my faves from AP English. (So dramatic and romantic and depressing!)
So, when I learned that Hillary Jordan, the author of Bellwether winner Mudbound, had written a novel that’s a modern interpretation of Hawthorne’s classic, set in a not-so-distant future when abortion is illegal and criminals are punished by getting their skin color genetically altered, I knew I had to take a look.
In the first chapter, we meet Hannah Payne just after she’s been “chromed,” or turned red. She’s been charged with the murder of her unborn child. In a Hunger Games-like twist, prisoners who have been chromed are initially held captive in a cell, where their anguish is broadcast on TV to Americans for entertainment. In what may be my favorite plot detail (don’t worry about spoilers; you learn this early), the Dimmesdale figure is—who else?—the pastor of a mega church.
The story then goes back in time to describe Hannah’s relationship with the pastor and with her family, then comes back to the present to show us what happens when she’s released from prison. Honestly, it reads like a thriller, and one that makes you think hard, to boot. I’ve already placed this one on my favorite-books-for-book-clubs list.
Here’s an excerpt from an early scene, when Hannah is sentenced for her crime:
“Hannah Elizabeth Payne,” began the judge.
“Before you sentence her,” interrupted Reverend Dale, “may I address the court once more?”
“Go ahead, Reverend.”
“I was this woman’s pastor. Her soul was in my charge.” She looked at him then, meeting his gaze. The pain in his eyes tore at her heart. “That she’s sitting before this court today isn’t just her fault, but mine as well, for failing to guide her toward righteousness. I’ve known Hannah Payne for two years. I’ve seen her devotion to her family, her kindness to those less fortunate, her true faith in God. Though her crime is grave, I believe that through His grace she can be redeemed, and I’ll do everything in my power to help her, if you’ll show her leniency.”
Among the jury, heads nodded and eyes misted. Even the judge’s stern countenance softened a bit. Hannah began to have hope. But then he shook his head sharply, as if he were dispelling an enchantment, and she said, “I’m sorry, Reverend. The law is absolute in these cases.”
The judge turned back to her. “Hannah Elizabeth Payne, having been found guilty of the crime of murder in the second degree, I hereby sentence you to undergo melachroming by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to spend thirty days in the Chrome ward of the Crawford State Prison and to remain a Red for a period of sixteen years.”
When he banged the gavel she swayed on her feet but didn’t fall. Nor did she look t Aidan Dale as the guards led her away.
What are you reading today? Are you going to pick up When She Woke when it comes out in a few weeks? By the way, you’re in for a treat in our October issue: We interviewed Jordan about the novel. Stay tuned to read it!