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Sixteen years as a Red

Cover of When She Woke
A review of When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

"When she woke she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declaritive red of a stop sign."

So opens Hillary Jordan's sophomore novel (after Mudbound).

Up until recently Hannah Payne has lived a pretty blameless life. Raised in a fundamentalist christian family she has always followed the teachings of her church and parents. Her one small rebellion is in the pretty dresses she designs and sews in her off hours at the bridal salon where she works. But creating forbidden outfits isn't what lands Hannah in jail. An affair with a forbidden man does. Her love for him drives Hannah to commit a that crime gets her convicted of murder. The punishment is 16 years as an outcast Red.

In the near future where Hannah lives things have gone from bad to worse in the world. Disease made many women sterile and that fact, among other disasters, has swung the United States in a strongly religious direction. As the prison overcrowding (and costs) became worse the government put science to work, perfecting a technique whereby criminals skin pigmentation could be changed to various colors based on their crime. Yellows and greens have generally committed lesser crimes, blues are sex offenders, and reds are generally guilty of murder. For the length of her sixteen year sentence Hannah's skin will remain a bright red. Though she only spends a month in confinement, she knows that ostracization from society and her family will be the true punishment.

Once she's released, simple survival is all that Hannah can contemplate. Though her father is still supportive and has found her a place in a group home, Hannah discovers each day is just another form of torture. But because she is forced into independence Hannah becomes the agent of her own life for the first time. Making her own decisions and moving forward on her own is the scariest thing she's ever done. 

This update of the Scarlet Letter is timely and thought-provoking (and also a nice suggestion for fans of new tv series of The Handmaid's Tale). Hannah's world is not that hard to imagine in the current world climate. The political and religious overtones may put some readers off, but this is not a polemic. Hannah experiences religious zealotry and she also experiences religious grace. And while I think Hannah's intellectual and emotional transformation was a little rushed (and even a little heavy-handed) at the end, it has stuck with me. If your book group is looking for a very discussible title, this would certainly fit the bill.

Sep 5, 2017