We awaken with Hannah Payne in a hospital room. As Hannah regains consciousness, we see what see she does: a bare room whose sole bit of color is Hannah herself: her skin is a bloody crimson red, the result of “chroming”, punishment for the crime of abortion. She will remain a “red” for 16 years, with ten years added to her sentence for refusing to name the child’s father.
For the next 30 days, Hannah will remain locked in the hospital room, where live television cameras will record her every move for a reality-television hungry public. Upon her release, she will be in arguably worse circumstances, a societal outcast inhabiting a dystopian near-future, an object of hatred and scorn requiring all her wits to survive.
When She Woke operates on a chilling principle: the United States is ruled by a right-wing, evangelical religious party that has deemed abortion illegal. Free speech has vanished. Societal offenders like Hannah are chromed, their color denoting their crime: cobalts are child molesters, yellows have committed misdemeanors. Reds, who have murdered, are second only to cobalts in public perception. Abortions qualify as murders. And like The Handmaid’s Tale, a book When She Woke has much in common with, abortions are more than an act against God: they are a transgression in a time when birthrates are plummeting.
In The Handmaid’s Tale the reasons for lowered birthrates are unclear; in Jordan’s story, they are the result of a rampant form of venereal disease called The Scourge. In the years before a cure was found, countless women were left sterile. Now children are so precious that many families hire bodyguards lest their children are kidnapped off the street.
Hannah also has much in common with Hester Prynne, of The Scarlet Letter—her pregnancy is the result of a liaison with her minister, the handsome, charismatic, and widely famous Aidan Dale. Hannah’s family are avid followers of Dale’s enormous Church of the Ignited Word, located in Plano, Texas. Hannah may begin her journey as a naïve young woman, but she is possessed of a deep moral sense. She cannot bear the idea of exposing the man she loves to the world at large, to her family, or even to his chilly wife, Alyssa.
After enduring 30 days at the hospital, with its meager rations of protein bars and complete lack of privacy, Hannah is released. She is left standing on the street. Her once-close family has divided: only her father will openly see her. Her mother has disowned her, while her sister, Becca, is torn between her abusive husband, Cole, and her beloved sister.
Chromes are marginalized, living in rough parts of town, subject to attacks and abuse. Hannah is fortunate: her father has located a place for her to stay, a sort of halfway house called The Straight Path Center. Intended to be a place of repentance and safety, it sounds ideal to Hannah until she enters a waking nightmare.
The Straight Path Center, run by Reverend Ponder Henley and his wife, is no better than the hospital/television studio/prison Hannah has just left. Dubbed “Walkers” for the path they trod back to God, The Straight Path Center is peopled by women chromed for a variety of crimes. While some hope to find their way back into churches, families, and communities, others are simply seeking safety in a dangerous world. And The Straight Path Center, while safe, is a place of strict rules, ritual humiliation, starvation, sleep deprivation, and hard labor.
Hannah, by now beginning to lose some of her naïveté, is horrified by the place but has nowhere else to go. She meets Kayla, a fellow red, who helps Hannah learn the many rules while warning her about Mrs. Henley, who public sweetness belies a far different agenda.
Hannah soon flees The Straight Path Center, joining Kayla, who has also fled. What ensues is a combination of unrealistic events—nutty to say in a book about a dystopian future, but accurate—entwined with a treacly love story and some genuinely alarming observations about the direction American society is taking. While Jordan is to be commended for her timely book, which courageously takes on the American political Right Wing and its close buddies the religious extremists, who do not have women’s rights uppermost on their shared agenda, When She Woke has some problems.
Hannah’s relationship to Aidan Dale is deeply puzzling. Even after Hannah flees The Straight Path Center, living life on the run, encountering individuals whose liberal views dramatically alter her thinking, she remains deeply in love with Dale. Aidan Dale is presented as a magical if deeply flawed man whose behavior is surprisingly honorable under the circumstances. And though he loves Hannah, Dale remains a man of an evangelical God.
As the book progresses and Hannah becomes increasingly liberal, the couple grow apart. Further, circumstances mean they will never be able to live together. Yet their love story is described constantly in the most saccharine terms.
“He looked melancholy… it became him, lending him a poignant beauty… He closed his eyes and rubbed them with one pale, long-fingered hand. Hannah’s arms ached to pull his head down into her lap, her fingers to smooth the care from his brow.”
“His skin actually seemed to be glowing, as if lit from within by an otherworldly radiance.. .Hannah recalled the hours, days, weeks she’d spent racked by the pain of the Aidan-shaped hole in her heart.”
Given the tremendous imagination that went into creating When She Woke, this switch to wording one might find in romance novels is jarring. Nor, strangely, is Hannah angered by Aidan’s indiscretion, even momentarily.
When She Woke’s plotline is crammed with events, with the story taking a new twist seemingly on every page. This can make for engaging reading, but at times lends a Stieg Larssen aspect—Lisbeth Salander was often rescued just as it would be curtains for any mortal. Hannah Payne is equally fortunate, and this whodunit aspect detracts from a book with a serious message.
When She Woke, despite its flaws, is a frightening look at what life could look like under a right wing leadership looking to bring God into the White House. We’re seeing red, indeed.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More
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