Thursday, February 2, 2012

How would you feel and act if your worst sin were painted on your face for the rest of your life for all the world to see at a glance? Would such a thing deter sinning? This is the time-honored yet timely premise behind When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, which has been called a modern retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, The Scarlet Letter.

Hannah Payne (yes, pretty close to Hester Pryne and some of the parallels in the book may be a bit too close) is in love. But her love is forbidden by the ultra-conservative Christian society that is her America. She is in love with a minister and has become pregnant. She chooses to have an abortion, although it is illegal and she is putting herself, her abortionist, and others in danger. When her crime is found out, she is sentenced to "chroming" which means because she has committed murder in the eyes of the law, her skin will be dyed a dark red so that everyone who sees her will know her crime (other crimes are dealt with in different colors). She must return to a clinic periodically to update this dying process to stay red, and if she does not, she will "frag" out and die. Hannah feels terrible about her abortion, as she still deeply loves the minister, but she also loves God and wants to return to Him. Her struggle lies in how she will survive in a society that can outwardly see her crime and thus, is prejudiced against her. How, if ever, can she return to God who she feels has forgotten her because of the radical Christians who try to reprogram her and in the end, abuse her?

My fascination with this story began a long time ago. In high school, thanks to my perfectly wonderful and brillliant English teacher Mrs. S, a couple girlfriends and I became just a little obsessed with The Scarlet Letter. Weird, yes, but the storyline of an ostrasized woman, a captivating illegitimate child, and a handsome, untouchable priest were just too intriguing. Throw in the movie version with a young, handsome John Heard and you've got a teenager's reading dream. Jordan takes this basic storyline and truly makes it both her own and our own by testing the reader's ability to imagine a not-too-far future and using some issues that are critical in American society today.

In Hawthorne's time, his book was controversial obviously because of the love affair with a priest and the resulting illegitimate child. Perhaps those are still very much controversial issues to some. But in this "futuristic" tale by Jordan, we're no longer looking at the issue of the child, but the issues of abortion and crime an punishment. As I said in my last review of The Confession, I do not believe in debating issues that fall into the "morality" category. But I ask you as a reader, if you choose to delve into this what I would call important book for our time, that you don't judge quickly the issues that have been debated for centuries, but stop and really think about them. Tear them apart with your mind and ask yourself questions beyond what you consider "moral." I challenge you to think about what America was and is, what it was meant to be for all people, for this is a very American story.

In a review, you should always give your opinion of the book, so here is mine. I think Hillary Jordan is brilliant and her book could not have come about at a better time. I believe it is an important book for women and for all who seek spirituality and healing. While hitting some very controversial issues that will make many readers squirm uncomfortably in their easy chairs, it holds a vision of God and spirituality that should also give hope in the face of any dispair. I found the character Simone's version of God to be particulary thought provoking and well-written. I believe that sometimes we all see moral issues as black and white and shut out people who think differently than ourselves.  But to do so means we are not sufficiently looking at our history or our present to see what can happen to societies that do so.

That said, it is my hope that no matter how you feel about the issues presented in this fictional story, if you choose to read the book, you will read it for the same reason you would read any other book - to learn. From all literature we should be able to learn either something about ourselves or something about others, but hopefully both of those at the same time. Enjoy!