When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan (author of the New York Times bestseller, Mudbound), is a cautionary tale set in a future devoid of separation between church and state. Our beautiful, conflicted heroine, Hannah Payne (think Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter), was raised with strong Christian values and indulged in a forbidden romance with a famously pious (and married) man. To protect him, she becomes a pariah—in society, her family, and even her religion.
This America practices “chroming,” a process of turning the skin of criminals a coded color from head to toe so they are instantly recognizable as the lowest of low beings. As Hannah struggles with self-discovery in her new and alien universe, her religious values are tested as she now embodies everything she was taught to scorn. She finds no help from the sources she used to depend on but nonetheless eventually discovers unexpected solace and friendship concerning her losses. With haunting prose, Hillary Jordan breathes life into her beautiful novel, leaving an indelible impact.
Read on for a Q&A with author Hillary Jordan and enter to win a copy of the book:
When She Woke begins with Hannah waking up on a pallet in a prison cell, and we learn that she is now colored red from head to toe. From that startling opening, the curtain is drawn back slowly to reveal this different America and Hannah’s place in it. Why did you choose to start the novel in this way?
I wanted to catapult readers into Hannah’s reality from page one, to make them experience what she was experiencing in an immediate and visceral way. And I wanted to create dramatic tension. In that sense I’m pretty traditional, both as a storyteller and as a reader: bring on the drama, and the juicier, the better.
In this new America, criminals are “chromed” a color to match their crime and reintroduced into society. It’s such a radical idea; what was your inspiration for the concept of “chroming”?
The idea was sparked by a conversation I had with a family member about the drug problem in America. He said something to the effect of, “I think all drugs ought to be legal and provided by the government; they just turn you bright blue.” Meaning, go get as high as you want, but other people will be able to see you coming and stay the hell away from you. And this conversation, and the idea of what it would be like to be stigmatized in this way, stuck in my mind, and some 15 years later, bore the strange red fruit that became When She Woke.
Your use of The Scarlet Letter might lead some to conclude that you think we’re moving toward an increasingly puritanical society. Do you?
I think there’s a small, loud group of people who would have us move in that direction, but really they’re no different from any of the other extremists in our history who have sought to impose their morality on the rest of us. The problem with the religious fundamentalist political agenda—besides the fact that it’s unconstitutional—is that it’s fundamentally un-American. Like all extremist movements, its success depends on making people afraid of each other. And while we’ve certainly seen periods in America when fear and paranoia have won out over reason and compassion—post-9/11, the Cold War, and Jim Crow are just a few of the more recent examples—they’ve never lasted.
I believe that’s because most of us want to find our own way to happiness. We’re here for such a short, precious time; we want to choose how we live, how we love, how we worship; and because we want that freedom for ourselves, we have to see the justice in giving it to our neighbors. When She Woke is about the consequences of letting fear and paranoia make us forget who we are. S&H
Giveaway! Win a copy of When She Woke, from Algonquin Books! To enter, leave a comment below telling us the name of a great book you’ve recently read, or what you’re currently reading. Commenting will close on Monday, Oct. 24 at 11 a.m. EST, at which time one winner will be selected at random. We’ll announce the winner on our Facebook page.
10/24/11 UPDATE: Our winner is Jill W. who recommended I Heard the Owl Call My Name! Thanks to everyone who commented for all the great reading suggestions! -The S&H Editors