Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Posted February 3, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 8 Comments

Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary JordanWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Published by Algonquin Books on 2011
Genres: Fiction, Speculative Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Source: my shelves

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When She Woke, Hillary Jordan’s second novel, is a modern-day take on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. As the result of a sexually transmitted pandemic nicknamed the “Great Scourge”, the United States has reverted back to a Puritan-like society. The country is being run by the Trinity Party–a group of fundamentalist Christians–and the separation between church and state has been eradicated. In this not-too-distant future, the economic strain of overcrowded prisons has been dealt with by imprisoning only the most violent of criminals. Each category of crime has been given a representative color, and anyone convicted of a crime is stigmatized by being injected with a virus that genetically alters their skin color, changing it to represent the class of their crime. The majority of criminals–called Chromes–are then released back into society to fend for themselves. This turns out to be just as cruel and inhumane as being packed into overcrowded prisons and mistreated by the system. Although Chromes are allowed to roam freely in society, they aren’t really free and they definitely aren’t safe–they are completely ostracized, continuously trackable by anyone with access to a computer, and in constant danger of being raped, assaulted, and even killed by vigilante groups reminiscent of the KKK.

When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.

She’d known what to expect–she’d seen Reds many times before, of course, on the street and on the vid–but still, she wasn’t prepared for the sight of her own changed flesh. For the twenty-six years she’d been alive, her hands had been a honey-toned pink, deepening to golden brown in the summertime. Now, they were the color of newly shed blood.

The story opens with Hannah Payne waking up in the Chrome ward of the Crawford State Prison to find herself melachromed a bright shade of red. She has been convicted of murder by the State of Texas for killing her unborn child–terminating a pregnancy that was the result of her secret love affair with the country’s newly appointed Secretary of Faith, Aidan Dale. She must spend thirty days in the Chrome ward, after which she will be released back into society to try to make a new life for herself. This new life includes not only attempting to survive as a Red in a society that would rather see her dead, but also reconciling the choices she’s made with her faith and strict religious upbringing. When She Woke tells the story of Hannah’s journey, one that will take her away from everything she’s known–physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I have been a fan of dystopian literature ever since reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager, and Hillary Jordan did a great job with When She Woke–both as a dystopian novel and as a modern-day Scarlet Letter. It was interesting to read this book at a time when women’s reproductive rights in this country are being attacked so seriously and enthusiastically (again). Jordan’s translation of The Scarlet Letter into modern times was also very interesting–I liked how she chose to represent some of Hawthorne’s characters and how she modernized the storyline itself, including the ways in which her storyline diverged from the original. The whole package was pretty realistic in an oh-my-goodness-please-don’t-let-this-happen kind of way. Of course, my favorite character was Hannah because she was resilient and asked questions and refused to accept the “because that’s just the way things are, now stop questioning it” kinds of answers. She was strong (she had to be), she refused to be told what to think, and when it came to her personal life, she refused to let others tell her how she should be leading it.

When She Woke is well-written, suspenseful, and thought-provoking. It is a story of survival, of self-discovery, and of the potential hazards of turning very personal things like faith and love into political issues. I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in reading a dystopian version of The Scarlet Letter, or to anyone who enjoys reading dystopian literature in general.


  • Great review, Heather! Before She Woke was my first venture into dystopian lit and I loved it!

  • Great review, Heather. I will definitely be getting my hands on this book. I’ll tell you, that society is a part of my nightmares. I couldn’t imagine living in a world like that.

    Can you believe I still haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale?

    • Whoa, wait… you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale? Oh, please read that first before you read When She Woke. Does our Fantasy genre for #TuesBookTalk include Speculative Fiction? Because you know, The Handmaid’s Tale could be one of the choices for our March read if that genre wins… 😉

  • I recently read The Scarlet Letter and a classmate told me this was a must-read. Looking forward to it!

    • I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of this one. Be sure to let me know.

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