When I fall for a book, I fall hard. I can barely think about anything else. I become consumed. When I’m not reading the book, I’m researching things that the book makes me think about, or I’m texting my sister to tell her to pick up a copy, or I’m talking my husband’s ear off about one part or another. It’s a sickness, really. As of yet, I’ve found no cure for a good book, though admittedly I haven’t really been trying.
This happened to me most recently with a book called When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan. It’s a tale of forbidden and doomed love set in a future where the right-wing religious folk have finally gotten their ducks in a row long enough to elect the right (but oh so wrong) people into power. Together, these people have criminalized abortions, deeming it murder, and have invented a nifty little drug that can actually pigment the skin. What this pigment allows them to do is change the color of a convicted criminal’s skin to match their infraction. For example for a misdemeanor, you become yellow, child molesters are blue, and the murderers are a dark scarlet red.
Enter Hannah Payne. A good girl who has fallen hopelessly and passionately in love with her Reverend, one Aiden Dale. Aiden is a sort of religious rock star, known and beloved by both his own Texas congregation and the entire God-loving world. But alas, Reverend Dale is already taken by the lovely and sweet Mrs. Alyssa Dale. Despite the obvious reasons why not, Ms. Payne and the good Reverend embark on an affair that leaves Hannah in quite a predicament. Pregnant, scared, and in love she does the only thing she can think of to save Aiden from the shame of exposing him for what he truly is. She gets an illegal abortion rather than bear his child and face the scrutiny of an angry public. When her crime is discovered, Hannah is arrested and forced to stand trial. Through it all she refuses to name both Aiden as the father and the man who preformed the abortion. Her sentence is sixteen years as a Red. Every four months for sixteen years Hannah will be injected with a virus that gives her skin the outward appearance of what society believes her to be, a murderer.
Hannah loses everything. Her child, her love, her family, her dignity, and even her faith in God. And this is only the beginning.
It only takes a sentence or two to make the not so subtle connection between When She Woke to the beautiful and classic novel The Scarlet Letter, but Ms. Jordan’s story stands well on its own. The reason you still find The Scarlet Letter in classrooms today is that the story is still very real. Our society thrives on creating and ridiculing outcasts. Ms. Jordan shows the reader how a story conceived and distributed so long ago is still a part of our present and future.
As a reader I found myself fascinated by Aiden Dale. He has countless opportunities to expose himself to his wife and followers for who he truly is, but time and time again he begs Hannah to do it for him. He wants her to be the one to name him when she is questioned by police, when she is on trial, when she is running for her life. He cannot bring himself to tell the truth despite the fact that he knows it will bring him peace. He bears the weight of the world. When everyone looks to him to help them find salvation in God, he looks to Hannah to show him the way. She had to sacrifice their child and herself in order to save him. She gave everything. She knew he wouldn’t expose the truth. Knew that she had to protect his wife, his congregation. Hannah knew that their faith in Aiden was more important that their love. And so she bore the weight of their judgment. She let everyone hate her. She laid down the life of her baby so that the rest of the world could have Aiden Dale and believe.
As I said, I fell for this book. Hard. There is so much to think, wonder, question. I think I will go back to this story again and again. My next job will be to reread the original version of this story and bring to it this new perspective. I love that about reading.
Thank you Hillary Jordan for giving me a new look at an old favorite.
I’m giving this 4 out 5 stars. Partially because I can’t help but feel there’s something missing, and partially because I’m heartbroken that our relationship ended so soon.
4 out of 5 Stars
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2012)
Paperback: 368 pages