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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.

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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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