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When She Woke: A Novel
When She Woke: A Novel
Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books, 2012
368 pp., $14.95

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Lillian Daniel


When She Woke

Part "Handmaid's Tale," part "Scarlet Letter," part biblical parable.

When She Woke is a terrifying look at what life would be like in America if we used the Ten Commandments as a legal code but lost all sense of Christian humility. This fictional Christian society merges the worst of church and state worlds, resulting in judgment without gospel, legalism without mercy, and a church that has so linked itself to the state it can no longer use Jesus' teachings to critique it.

Just knowing that much, one might predict that this book will be yet another unsubtle excoriation of American Christianity, painting the church with a broad and sophomoric brush. Thankfully, When She Woke is more nuanced. In this dystopian novel—part Handmaid's Tale, part Scarlet Letter, part biblical parable—Hillary Jordan poses questions about everything from prison reform to Jefferson's wall without ever sounding preachy. She lets the plot make the points.

The main character is a woman whose adulterous affair causes her to lose everything, while the man in question escapes punishment. The story takes place in a futuristic America controlled by a fundamentalist Christian political party, where the line between a very conservative church and a very conservative state has been erased.

Jordan's heroine, Hannah, a sheltered young woman from a working-class family, devoted to her local megachurch, develops a crush on her celebrity pastor. After taking a job at the church's outreach mission, she comes to see that his own seemingly perfect marriage is not without its strains. She falls in love with him and they enter into affair. They sneak off to hotel rooms, take stolen days to be together, but all along he makes it clear that he will never leave his wife because he would never "bring that shame upon her."

While the pastor clearly does not put his lover on such a pedestal, Hannah idolizes him. When she suddenly finds herself pregnant, she does not tell him, because he has just been appointed to a cabinet position in Washington, D.C., as the "Secretary of Faith." Hannah does not want to ruin her lover's career and yet can see no way to raise their baby alone. Single motherhood would not be an option, given that her family would not rest until they got the name of the father, to prosecute him for adultery, now a crime. So against her own beliefs, desperate and alone, Hannah seeks a back-alley abortion.

Abortion is also a criminal offense. Hannah is caught in a police raid, and because she refuses to give up the name of her lover or the doctor who performed the procedure, the whole weight of the criminal system falls on her.

In this fantasy future, the Christians have done away with capital punishment. Long prison sentences have been replaced by "chroming," in which criminals are injected with a virus that turns their skin a bright color, with a different color for each category of crime. After a month in solitary confinement, Hannah is released to spend the next forty years roaming the streets with bright red skin. Everywhere she goes, she is visible for her crimes, spat upon, beaten, screamed at, and threatened.

The author uses chroming as an obvious metaphor for racism and profiling in the real-life American penal system, and it works. In a clever twist, chroming allows Jordan's society to judge someone by the color of their skin and actually be "right" about it. But of course, in telling the story of one who has been chromed, we see how much more complicated it is.

One of the strengths of When She Woke, is that while the author obviously hates the fictional world she has created, she doesn't hate the characters who made it that way. Throughout the novel, ordinary people respond better than expected. While chroming brings out the brutality of the self-righteous, there are others who live out their faith the way Jesus would, and reach out to the most despised.

Jordan also helps us understand the reasons her country got this way. She explains that the world has been traumatized by a sexually transmitted disease called the "scourge," which left a large percentage of the world's women infertile. So naturally, abortion came to be seen as the worst of all crimes. Hannah is hated by men and women alike, for her decision to abort in a world that is short of children.

There are many nods to the biblical world—most notably, stories of women being stoned for adultery while their male counterparts go free. While the men are supposed be held accountable, in When She Woke, as in so many biblical stories, it's the women who bear the evidence and therefore the women who get caught. In the gamble of adultery, when you have a society in which women have no access to birth control, the playing field is far from equal and the stakes are highest for the one with the least power.

Hannah, suddenly cast out of her small and insular religious world, now must take company with others whose skin is dyed. Rejected by her family, she is also rejected by her church. Not for her crime—they are eager to forgive her—but they cannot accept her refusal to bring the guilty man to justice.

So Hannah must cast her lot with the outsiders. And from that perspective, Hannah wonders about her lover, now famous for his good deeds in Washington: "Had she made him a better man, or a worse man? Had that even been in her power, or had she simply allowed him to be the man he was, good and bad, both?" One of the pleasures of When She Woke is that so many of the characters get to be "both."

But that's not to say the book does not have a point of view. When She Woke is a warning about the ugliness of a society in which fear is the driving force, and judgment and shame its harshest weapons. In this twisted world, the Ten Commandments, offered to humanity by God as an act of love, as beautiful ways to live, get used instead like weapons.

Throughout the gospels, people ask Jesus about the commandments, usually to admit them as grounds for punishment or exclusion. But his answers are always complicated, both honoring the commandment and yet at the same time turning the expected judgment on its head.

Even when confronted with an adulterous woman, Jesus defends and protects her, then turns from her accusers to draw in the sand. We are left to imagine what he wrote there. The image of those words in the sand, never recorded, remind us that there is always more to the story, even in the God's holy Word.

And in When She Woke, sheltered Hannah learns the same lesson. The religious rules and legal codes are much more complicated from the point of view of the chromed. From sheltered church mouse to outlaw, Hannah does not lose her faith, but comes to question the rules that have trumped grace. Jesus seems to be the unnamed character in the book, pulling her—and all of us as readers—back from the brink of self-righteousness.

The Ten Commandments were offered to humanity in the hope that we might look at ourselves and, as a result, try to lives more beautiful and pleasing to God. But it's so easy to take these gifts intended for self-reflection and use them only to judge others.

When She Woke is not a condemnation of those commandments. It's a frightening tale of what happens when we use those commandments badly, as battering rams rather than guides. And that's a lesson that Jordan is careful to show rather than to tell.

This is a book that begs for a sequel. Will the rejected follower ever return to the church? Will well-meaning Christians regret casting their lot with conservative political agendas? Will the church break free of its captivity to the powers of government? Will the celebrity pastor sacrifice his reputation and tell the truth about his life? Will prisoners always be judged by the color of their skin?

Perhaps we don't need a sequel to When She Wrote after all. We can just stay tuned to the nightly news.

Lillian Daniel is Senior Minister, First Congregational Church, UCC, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She is the author of When "Spiritual but Not Religious" Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Unexpected Places, Even the Church, coming from Jericho Books in January.

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