When She Woke, AKA The Handmaid's Tale for the 21st Century

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I think I have mentioned here on the blog before that while I was raised by a feminist and called myself a feminist even as a young teen, I didn't really get feminism until I read Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. Atwood is a master of speculative fiction, and her chilling vision of what might become of women in a future where our reproduction is controlled by men made me understand just how precious freedom of choice is, and how hard we have to work to ensure it.

While The Handmaid's Tale is powerful and disturbing, at the time it was written the fictional future it reflected, while not unrealistic, felt far away.  The near future world created by Hillary Jordan in her speculative fiction novel, When She Woke, feels frighteningly plausible and terrifyingly close.  Centered around the same themes as Atwood's classic feminist novel, but updated with 21st century geo-politics and technology, When She Woke tells the story of Hannah, a young woman from a fundamentalist religious background, who was convicted of murder after getting an illegal abortion.  In this near future, a sexually transmitted disease, carried by men but affecting only women, has rendered a large portion of the female population infertile.  In the panic that ensued, the United States overturned Roe v. Wade.  In addition, an economic depression led to the closure of prisons in favor of melachroming convicted criminals-literally changing their skin color to green or yellow or blue or red depending on their crime.  Hannah wakes up as a Red, the color of murderers.  When she is released from her detention, she becomes a social outcast.  Her family essentially disowns her for taking the life of her unborn child, and they send her to an enlightenment camp to try and "save" her and help her return to God.  But enlightenment means facing daily cruelty and abuse, and eventually Hannah is forced to leave.  Thus begins a journey from powerless to powerful; from weakness to strength; from blind, unquestioning faith to a new understanding of God and his relationship to the evil "others"-atheists, homosexuals, abortionists, socialists, non-Christians-she has always been taught to fear and hate.

The title refers not just to the day that Hannah woke up as a Red, but to the very real awakening of her ability to think for herself, to question her almost slavish devotion to her evangelical brand of Christianity, to envision a life for herself where she decides her path, rather than having it laid out before her by her father and then her husband.  The real world is a shock to someone as sheltered from it has Hannah had been.  Hannah comes to understand that morality is much more complex than the narrow, black-and-white worldview of her conservative faith.  How to rationalize the cruelty of her fellow Christians, or the kindness of the unsaved, when she has been taught that strict adherence to God's law-as interpreted by preachers, fathers, and husbands-is the only way to please God and achieve a place in heaven.

When She Woke lacks the amazing facility with language that Atwood's work always displays.  But what it lacks in literary-ness it makes up for in strong characterization and a quick-paced, exciting story.  Hannah has a rich internal life, and the journey that she takes-both physical and spiritual-as a result of her status as a Chrome is deeply moving.  But what struck me even more was how authentic the made-up future felt.  Global pandemic, war with Iran, water wars in Africa, the rise of religious fundamentalism...every one a possible outcome of the current state of our world.  Is it implausible that Iran could get a nuclear weapon and bomb the US?  It might not be likely, but it's certainly not impossible.  Experts have been warning about wars over water for at least the last decade.  Bird flu, swine flu, SARS-we've seen just how our increasingly global culture can lead to the spread of disease.  And the beliefs of the religious extremists in this book are awfully close to the Pat Robertson/Rick Santorum version of today-except it has become the law of the land.  How much would it take for the Promise Keepers to become the fictional Fist of God-a group that hunts down and exterminates anyone it perceives as immoral?  When She Woke is a powerful wake-up call for anyone who cares about reproductive rights, the separation of church and state, or social justice.


  1. I got this book for Christmas and I am hoping to read it soon. Great review, I like the comparison with Atwood. I loved the Handmaids Tale.

  2. Nice review! I read this book and really liked it -- and I agree with your comparison to The Handmaid's Tale (a book which I really love).

  3. I still need to read the Handmaids Tale and this one!

  4. This book looks really intriguing. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. I could not agree with you more on your review of "When She Woke". While I thought her first novel was more literary, the characters in this novel were astonishingly well developed. Have you ever listened to the "radio show" of "The Handmaid's Tale"?



Penny for your thoughts...