Sam’s Review of When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When I fall for a book, I fall hard.  I can barely think about anything else.  I become consumed.  When I’m not reading the book, I’m researching things that the book makes me think about, or I’m texting my sister to tell her to pick up a copy, or I’m talking my husband’s ear off about one part or another.  It’s a sickness, really.  As of yet, I’ve found no cure for a good book, though admittedly I haven’t really been trying.

This happened to me most recently with a book called When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan.  It’s a tale of forbidden and doomed love set in a future where the right-wing religious folk have finally gotten their ducks in a row long enough to elect the right (but oh so wrong) people into power. Together, these people have criminalized abortions, deeming it murder, and have invented a nifty little drug that can actually pigment the skin. What this pigment allows them to do is change the color of a convicted criminal’s skin to match their infraction. For example for a misdemeanor, you become yellow, child molesters are blue, and the murderers are a dark scarlet red.

Enter Hannah Payne. A good girl who has fallen hopelessly and passionately in love with her Reverend, one Aiden Dale. Aiden is a sort of religious rock star, known and beloved by both his own Texas congregation and the entire God-loving world. But alas, Reverend Dale is already taken by the lovely and sweet Mrs. Alyssa Dale. Despite the obvious reasons why not, Ms. Payne and the good Reverend embark on an affair that leaves Hannah in quite a predicament. Pregnant, scared, and in love she does the only thing she can think of to save Aiden from the shame of exposing him for what he truly is. She gets an illegal abortion rather than bear his child and face the scrutiny of an angry public. When her crime is discovered, Hannah is arrested and forced to stand trial. Through it all she refuses to name both Aiden as the father and the man who preformed the abortion. Her sentence is sixteen years as a Red. Every four months for sixteen years Hannah will be injected with a virus that gives her skin the outward appearance of what society believes her to be, a murderer.

Hannah loses everything.  Her child, her love, her family, her dignity, and even her  faith in God.  And this is only the beginning.

It only takes a sentence or two to make the not so subtle connection between When She Woke to the beautiful and classic novel The Scarlet Letter, but Ms. Jordan’s story stands well on its own. The reason you still find The Scarlet Letter in classrooms today is that the story is still very real. Our society thrives on creating and ridiculing outcasts. Ms. Jordan shows the reader how a story conceived and distributed so long ago is still a part of our present and future.

As a reader I found myself fascinated by Aiden Dale. He has countless opportunities to expose himself to his wife and followers for who he truly is, but time and time again he begs Hannah to do it for him. He wants her to be the one to name him when she is questioned by police, when she is on trial, when she is running for her life. He cannot bring himself to tell the truth despite the fact that he knows it will bring him peace. He bears the weight of the world. When everyone looks to him to help them find salvation in God, he looks to Hannah to show him the way. She had to sacrifice their child and herself in order to save him. She gave everything. She knew he wouldn’t expose the truth. Knew that she had to protect his wife, his congregation. Hannah knew that their faith in Aiden was more important that their love. And so she bore the weight of their judgment. She let everyone hate her. She laid down the life of her baby so that the rest of the world could have Aiden Dale and believe.

As I said, I fell for this book. Hard. There is so much to think, wonder, question. I think I will go back to this story again and again. My next job will be to reread the original version of this story and bring to it this new perspective. I love that about reading.

Thank you Hillary Jordan for giving me a new look at an old favorite.

I’m giving this 4 out 5 stars. Partially because I can’t help but feel there’s something missing, and partially because I’m heartbroken that our relationship ended so soon.

4 out of 5 Stars

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2012)
Paperback: 368 pages
ISBN: 9781616201937

Complex Reading vs. Simplistic Reading

Adam and I were discussing The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway when we began discussing complex books vs. simplistic books.  We started discussing it because I was talking about how The Old Man and the Sea speaks in very simplistic language. I personally am a fan of classic literature books, books that follow the style of Jane Austen’s writing period, and also books that make you think.  It’s not very common that I read a book written in simplistic terms.  While it’s a nice break, I enjoy reading to enrich my mind, grow my vocabulary, make me think, and also make stop and pause to look and appreciate the things around me.

Adam had said he wished more writers would write simplistically. He felt that books get overly wordy and explain everything in such small detail.  He would rather be able to think about what it looked like, smelt like, felt like, etc on his own. He wants authors to cut out the “fluff” and get down to the nitty-gritty.  I can agree with him about fluff to a degree.  Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck has almost a full chapter explaining in extreme detail about a turtle crossing the road. It is the MOST boring thing I’ve ever read in my life. So on the subject of “fluff” I can agree to a degree with Adam.

The more and more I thought about what we were discussing the stronger I felt for books that weren’t super simplistic. In my eyes reading holds the keys to enriching people’s lives and minds.  For people who will never be able to travel to Europe in their lifetime, they can pick up a book and read about what it’s like. Those that will never make it scuba diving, mountain climbing, sky diving etc, they can pick up a book and read about others experiences doing it.  None of us know what it was like to live in the past when King Henry VIII ruled, but we can pick up a book and read about what it was like.  If writing was always written simplistically, we might not be able to experience any of these things through words.

Reading complex things also expands your intelligence.  The more you read the better your vocabulary gets and your sentence structure get stronger.  You learn to recognize metaphors, themes, similes, protagonists, antagonists, conflicts, resolutions, etc. 

When I think of classic literature I don’t think of simplistic authors or simplistic books – I see Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Poe, Arthur Miller, Steinbeck, etc. I see Pride and Prejudice, Macbeth, North and SouthTo Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, etc.  These books are taught in schools and taught year after year because we learn from them.  As a child you’re taught with picture books, then you begin reading and move to chapter books, as we get older and our brains can handle more we begin reading “the classics.”  That is how we progress on to college and into the working environment. As our brains retain more knowledge our reading levels change, allowing us to read more complex books. I think in order to continue to grow intellectually, that adults should read complex books.  Throwing in a simplistic book here and there is ok, it gives your brain a rest, which is definitely necessary.

As I was talking to Todd last night I said to him that I think reading books with details is important as well.  For me reading poetry expands the meaning of love, reading books that discuss the look, smell, taste of things enriches my own senses.  Reading about a sunrise/sunset and then seeing one – I can understand the text better and understand the beauty around me.

I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on what I’ve said.  Adam has been kind enough to begin writing a response to my thoughts that I’ll post up before the week is out.  Please comment and let me know what side of the argument you fall on!

Happy Reading!