Everything I knew about Hillary Jordan's When She Woke before I started reading it was that it was a futuristic Scarlet Letter, where the adulteress was dyed bright red. This could have gone a few ways--The Scarlet Letter is a great book, but the resetting of a story that depends so heavily on the cultural mores of a moment is quite tricky. I was afraid that the author would shape a future dystopia that looked just like Puritan New England, which seems kind of redundant and forced.
Happily, the Scarlet Letter is just a launching point for this story. For some reason it made me think of The Handmaid's Tale, even though the world wasn't so foreign as that. It was more the tone, the sense of sexual repression being pervasively in the air. I also thought of Citizen Ruth, the movie with Laura Dern. Again, one woman's body becomes a political issue.
Even more, though, I'm reminded of the way that movie went through specific phases. Ruth starts in one place, gets swept to another group of people, moves on to another life. It seems like there ought to be a word for stories like this, where the acts are basically very different worlds that the character travels through--Watership Down, Ursula LeGuin's Powers, all kinds of books do this. When She Woke is one of these.
It starts out all Hester Prynne--Hannah has been treated with a virus that turns all her skin bright red. She's serving one month in a small cell. Her crime was having an abortion, but her sentence is longer because she won't name the father. You can guess, perhaps, who he is. Anyway, the prison sentence is short, because the "chroming" is long--for 16 years, she will be instantly recognizable by everyone she meets as a felon.
Her very religious family is not okay with what she's done. To be honest, she's not, either--Hannah is a true believer in everything she's been raised to, in a future Texas where her pastor has just been named the nation's Minister of Faith. So after prison, she goes to a halfway house. From there she moves into other worlds, meets other groups of people with other values, other goals. With each experience she re-examines her beliefs, and her understanding of the world is adjusted.
This is an overtly political book, and its greatest strength is in showing how a kind, generous person can hold unexamined, simply-justified beliefs that are oppressive and harmful. Even better, we get to watch her mind change, to see which of her beliefs need to be examined. I'm not sure if it's a bit simplistic, or if it really is a very simple process. Either way, it's an educational journey for Hannah, and some good, creepy worldbuilding for us.
I'm not quite done, and I have to say, though, that it's getting a little extreme as we approach the end. Things might be going off the rails a bit, in terms of Hannah becoming open minded; I'm not sure yet if it's part of her psychological journey, or if it's overkill on the author's part. We'll see.
I love me some world building, and this one hit eerily close to home. If only for that, I'm definitely glad I finally got around to this one.