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‘When She Woke’ by Hillary Jordan

‘When She Woke’ by Hillary Jordan

Author: Julie R. Enszer

May 8, 2012

At the beginning of When She Woke (2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist), Hannah Payne, the protagonist in Hillary Jordan’s new dystopian novel, wakes up in state confinement. Her body has been transformed by “melachroming,” a biological process that turns a convicted criminal’s skin a different color. Hannah’s body is red, the color designated for people who commit murder. Hannah’s crime? She had an abortion; in the not so distant future, abortion is murder.

Hannah survives the thirty days of isolation that corresponds with the initial melachroming; upon her release her father arranges for her to live in a “sanctuary” the Straight Path Center. Path, an acronym for Penitence, Atonement, Truth, and Humility, is another form of religious indoctrination and social humiliation for Hannah. Hannah escapes from the Straight Path Center only to be thrust into the hostile world where “Chromes” are subjected to harassment and violence.

When She Woke is inspired by two iconic novels. Riffing on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, Jordan explores shunning in a future world dominated by religious fundamentalism and criminal vigilante-ism. What is most compelling about Hannah in the novel is her conflicted internal landscape. Hannah’s sentence is more severe because of her refusal to name the man who was the father of the fetus. As the story of Hannah’s love affair with the man who impregnated her unfolds through flashbacks, Hannah struggles to understand her new life as a “Chrome” and her previous commitments to her Christian religion. From the internal psychological drama of the novel, an increasingly complex and compelling young woman emerges.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale haunts the world imagined in When She Woke. Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel is set in Gilead, a patriarchal theocracy, and tells the tale a young woman, Offred, a handmaid waiting to be impregnated by Fred, a member of the ruling class. Through these two works of fiction, Jordan and Atwood explore the consequences of the medicalization of bodies generally and of women’s bodies and reproductive capacities in particular.

In Atwood’s novel totalitarianism through state power and religious power is the primary form of imagined social control. In When She Woke, the internet and television, coupled with religious zealotry, form a system for social control. When Hannah is confined after her “melachroming,” she is broadcast on television; upon her release into the world she is “tagged;” anyone can log into the internet to see her location and monitor her on video. These situations is similar to the central conceit of The Hunger Games where young people are forced to fight to the death in a national televised game. These two contemporary visions of a dystopian future offer sharp critiques of our current culture, obsessed with celebrity culture and reality television programs.

As a character, Hannah emerges from a broad set of cultural factors—her religious family, her close relationship with her sister Becca, and a society with increasing religious power and influence on politics and government. Generally, Jordan animates this world and Hannah’s role in it in credible and compelling ways. There are moments, however, when Hannah’s actions were not convincing to me. In the first instance, when Hannah leaves the Straight Path Center, she immediately plans to find Kayla, another woman from the Center who left the same day. While there is some interaction between Hannah and Kayla at the Center, these brief conversations didn’t foreground Hannah’s leap to friendship with Kayla.

The other moment of disbelief for me is when Hannah sleeps with Simone. Simone is one of the leaders of the Novembrists, a radical, feminist organization fighting back against the state; the Novembrists all take their name from famous feminists, Simone from du Beauvoir. As a lesbian reader, I always cheer when I encounter intimacy and sex between women, particularly in novels from commercial publishers. This lesbian scene, however, was particularly abrupt. I was dubious about Hannah’s desire for Simone—or Simone’s for Hannah. Their intimacy did not seem to evolve organically with the novel; like the friendship with Kayla, the sexual encounter between Simone and Hannah felt grafted on. Moreover, the intimacy between Hannah and Simone felt less potent than the sexual desire between Hannah and Aidan, the man Hannah protected. Finally, the sex was largely left to reader’s imaginations. The entire intimate moment between Hannah and Simone amounts to less than a single page of text; it begins with Hannah murmuring, “Close your eyes,” then “Spread your legs,” cuts to the dreaded empty line where the deed occurs and then resumes with Hannah and Simone “lying in a tangle of limbs.” Disappointing.

On balance, however, these are minor quibbles with the book. Overall I found When She Woke compelling as a feminist reader from the first page to the last. In a moment where women’s bodies and our access to reproductive control are fodder for political and religious aggrandizement, When She Woke is a chilling reminder of what could happen, if we don’t speak out.


When She Woke

Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Hardcover, 9781565126299, 344 pp.

Julie R. Enszer photo

About: Julie R. Enszer

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, and Frontiers. She is the author of two poetry collections, Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011). Milk & Honey was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. She is the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. You can read more of her work at

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