Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Imagine, for a moment, that we lost. No one listened when we said that giving personhood status to fertilized Mississipean eggs was a slippery slope, so now we live in a dystopic theocracy where reality TV and the justice system collude to let us watch Hannah Payne wake up to her new life as a Chrome; her skin dyed “the color of newly shed blood” as punishment for having an abortion. In this America, criminals aren’t locked up or rehabilitated — they’re released back into society with their skin dyed to match the class of their crime. (Misdemeanor offenders are Yellows; child molesters Blues, etc).

Twenty-six-year-old Hannah spent her sheltered life devoted to church, family and sewing until she fell in love with married Pastor Dale of Ignited Word megachurch. To save his career, she had an abortion — in violation of the Sanctity of Life (SOL) Laws enacted by an ultra-conservative movement called The Rectification after the “superclap” left many women sterile. In China and India, women are forcibly inseminated. Life is precious, after all.

Now Hannah must figure out how to survive the next decade and a half on the fringes of society (while her former lover becomes National Secretary of Faith, adored by millions). Rejected by her family  —  her brother-in-law belongs to a secret evangelical society called, in a great touch, “The Fist of Christ” — she stays awhile at the Straight Path Center, where women are forced to relive their abortions and carry dolls that represent their unborn children. This may be the creepiest part of a very creepy book, because it’s probably not dystopian futuristic fiction. It’s probably happening at the “crisis pregnancy center” down the street from my house.

After leaving the Center, Hannah meets up with an Underground railroad of gun-toting anarcho-feminists dedicated to reproductive freedom by any means necessary. Hannah is torn between need and suspicion:

Feminists. The word made Hannah bristle with distaste. In her world, they were viewed as unnatural woman who sought to overturn the order laid down by God, sabotage the family, emasculate men and, along with gays, atheists, abortionists, Satanists, pornographers and secular humanists, pervert the American way of life. Many people Hannah knew blamed feminists and their fellow deviants for calling down the wrath of God, in the form of the 9/11 attacks, the LA bombing and natural catastrophes like the Great Scourge and the Hayward quake. Hannah had always found it hard to believe that God would destroy millions of lives out of vindictiveness, despite what the Old Testament said. Still, she’d never questioned much of what she’d been taught, and certainly not the precept that women were meant to submit to the loving guidance of men.

As the story continues, we realize that The Rectification doesn’t represent the majority; but rather a vocal, powerful minority. Most young women don’t share Hannah’s beliefs or background. We watch Hannah realize how small her life has been;  how curtailed her options:

She’d always believed that her parents had done right by her, but now, sitting mute at Stanton’s table, she found herself seething over their choices. Why had they kept her life so small? Why had they never asked her what she wanted? At every possible turn, she saw, they’d chosen the path that would keep her weak and dependent. And the fact that they wouldn’t see it that way, that they sincerely believed they’d acted in her best interest, didn’t make it any less true, or them any less culpable.

“You’re mighty quiet, Hannah,” Stanton said. “What do you think?”

“I don’t,” she snapped. “I was raised not to.”

When She Woke is obviously a modernization of The Scarlet Letter with shades of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s not derivative. Hannah’s America is both alien and familiar, honing in on technological and cultural shifts Atwood couldn’t have imagined with this degree of detail in 1986. Read it. It’ll shake you up.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

  1. It sounds to me (by your thoughtful presentation) that this autor is speaking from a position of deep understanding of the amerikan xtian dominionist mindset.

    We should start to see many more like them and I’m not quite sure if that’s a *good thing* or a bad one. :/

  2. Thanks for reviewing this book; I’d seen it reviewed elsewhere and thought it looked interesting, but I wasn’t sure how *good* a book it was (like, there can be books built around the most interesting ideas that are just boring, or awkwardly written, or whatever, and I was worried that this one, since it’s YA and is so “topical”, might be a bit oversimplified and sledgehammery. And not in a good way, like Andrea Dworkin can be sledgehammery – she hammers you with things you may have felt but never been able to articulate before, while too often these Contemporary Issues books tend to hammer at things a thoughtful reader has already realized).

    @Sargasso Sea – I’m glad so many people are writing about Christian Dominionists (particularly factual books, like that one about the Quiverfull movement, but novels are good too), because I don’t think they register as a threat to most Americans. Especially the more liberal Christians. I think there is this thought that they’re Christian, their hearts are in the right place; we just disagree with them about some things. I don’t think most people see them as the kind of existential threat that I (and, presumably, you) do.

  3. One funny thing: If you look at the reviews on Amazon.com,, you’ll see that the negative ones come down hard on the author for having a “political agenda.” Sort of the point.

  4. Thanks for this review. It’s good to keep the fiction going to continue to warn women about the spreading right wing christian danger to women. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was the perfect book for its time, for example. Margaret Atwood said in an interview once, that everything in the book had already happened in different cultures worldwide, so while it was a work of fiction, it described real theocracies that oppressed women for centuries.

    It’s where we got the term “handmaid of the patriarchy” to describe women who regularly sell out to patriarchal values, and do the cheerleading for men like Gingrich. Women back up and enable the oppressors, and visionary fiction keeps us all alert.

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