Even more than with her debut novel Mudbound, Jordan has a powerful story to tell in When She Woke, and a moral (or two) she clearly wants to impart to her reader. Jordan has a highly creative imagination and a strong feminist streak, and her story—loosely modeled on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and drawing inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—packs a punch. All that said, I think Jordan was a little too busy trying to get her point across to notice that her story was morphing from sci-fi to romance to action thriller to political tirade, and getting weaker all along the way. And it’s a pity, because the conceit of the book is fascinating.
Hannah lives in the near-future, where nuclear war has ravaged some American cities, where right-wing religious zealots have taken over the U.S. government, and where crimes are punished by “chroming” the skin color of the criminal—yellow, blue, green or red. Hannah wakes up in a cell, bright red all over after she is convicted at trial for murder. Brought up properly in a Christian family, Hannah had nonetheless been seduced into a love affair with a widely-loved and respected—and married–evangelical preacher, and upon discovering her pregnancy, chose to abort it rather than endanger her lover’s reputation and marriage. Abortion is illegal and she is caught, tried, and punished with an indelible scarlet, all the while refusing to name names.
Thus begins the story, but it rapidly escalates as Hannah is released into a half-way house with other “Chromes” who are being “re-educated” under the dominance of uber-religious sadists disguised as teachers. When she and her friend Kayla abandon the facility, they face the uncertainty of survival on the streets—not only is the general populace violently hostile to Chromes, but there is an association of vigilantes called “The Fist” which hunts and kills Chromes. Fortunately for Hannah and her friend, there is also an active “pro-choice” underground movement which plucks the women off the streets in the nick of time and funnels them towards Canada, where abortion is legal and where they can be “de-Chromed.” So far, so good, even if we get the distinct feeling we are reading a cross between Hawthorne’s “Letter” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
And that’s where the action stumbles, the plot crumbles, and the book loses a few stars in my view: Hannah faces a rather creepy kidnapping, a brief side-trip into red slavery, a steamy divergence into lesbian action, a philosophical tete-a-tete with a female priest, and a final inexplicable and doomed reunion with her former lover, the evangelical celebrity now promoted to head the government’s Ministry of Faith. No matter how Jordan chooses to end her story at this point, the creative momentum is lost in a swirl of melodrama and political harangue.