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by Hillary Jordan
2011, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, hardcover, 9781565126299
Reviewed by Michael Matthew

Book Cover Forbidden love, unintended pregnancy, betrayed innocence, laws broken, just and unjust punishment; some stories will always fascinate us. Hillary Jordan has told this story afresh, and very well.

Jordan's When She Woke is a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel told the story of a young woman, in the Puritan New England of the 1600s, who has a daughter out of wedlock, and must wear a scarlet letter "A" on her clothing to publicly proclaim her sin--even as she conceals that her child's father is the town's minister. For decades, The Scarlet Letter was nearly universally taught to teenagers in literature classes in the United States. It still is read there, but not as widely, our view of unwed pregnancy having changed.

Jordan has convincingly imagined a near-future USA where today's trends have progressed in ways that give Hawthorne's old tale new relevance. In many of the states of this future America, criminals are punished by a reversible treatment that turns their skins a saturated, often primary color--blue for child molestation, green for violence, chrome yellow for lesser offences.

And red for murder, including abortion.

Here, Hawthorne's Hester Prynne has become Hannah Payne, in her mid-twenties yet as naive as a sheltered 16 year old, reared in a loving, devoutly religious family. She is taught to subordinate herself to God's plan, and to see the world always through the lens of her and her parents' faith. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale has become Aidan Dale, pastor of the 20,000-member Church of the Ignited Word, founder of a worldwide ministry. He is seemingly happily married, and is the first person to be appointed to the newly created post of Secretary of Faith in the President's cabinet. Hannah and Aidan become lovers, and she terminates her pregnancy, without telling him, to protect his career. In Hannah's Texas, abortion is illegal in every case except where the mother would die from continuing the pregnancy. She is caught, tried, convicted, and, at the novel's beginning, wakes, after her treatment, with red skin, "[not] flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign." Following a harsh, one-month incarceration, she is released, to try to survive for the next 16 years in a world where people like her are excluded, hated, robbed, assaulted and murdered—and visibly branded as criminals, always and everywhere.

Many fine touches attend the story of Hannah's pilgrimage through the world that becomes her prison. Her falling-in-love with Rev. Dale is intense, almost palpable. Her motivations for her abortion are believably confused. The particular cruelties she receives from a now-hostile world are vividly drawn and psychologically acute. The story of how this world grew from ours is convincing. Numerous details, of a world of fingernail holograms and climate change, are expertly yet unobtrusively filled in as the story progresses. The abortion ban is partly driven by concerns about female fertility, because a new, severe disease has sterilized many people. An underground railroad to Canada exists. The last two elements, especially, remind the reader that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was here before.

This is not simply a story of absolutes. Jordan complicates it. Aidan Dale and Hannah's parents oppose capital punishment laws, against the wishes of many in the congregation, and Dale's church loses many members as a result. Dale may seduce a parishioner, but he does definite good for the least of us. Hannah's parents are loving and generous, if perhaps limited by a lack of broader perspective. Her childhood is safe and nurturing, although confining when she is older. The role of skin color as a marker of race is considered, if not as thoroughly as one might wish. Hannah's conflicted feelings about her abortion are explored.

Of course there are flaws. The prose shades toward the purple at times. Hannah makes some choices that, for who she has become, are not convincing. These do not, finally, detract much from the excellence of this book.

The Scarlet Letter is named as inspiration, but When She Woke is more than a retelling of Hawthorne. Jordan has taken a story that was old long before The Scarlet Letter and brought it to new life. She has connected it both to one of our most contentious issues, and to the experience we have all had, of falling for the wrong person. Were I a high school English teacher, I would certainly consider recommending this book to my better students, or those among them ready for its mature themes. It would support book club discussions very well. As a reviewer, I recommend it for every reader.

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Michael Matthew is a principal scientist with a small company outside of Boston. Outside work, his reading is usually, but not limited to: nonfiction, current events, poetry or science fiction.

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