When She Woke falls firmly in the young adult literature genre, but within that realm, its home is on the older end of young adults. The writing style and vocabulary are by no means out of reach of middle school students, but the themes and content definitely require a bit more mature reader. I was drawn into the novel from the very start, loving the obvious references to The Scarlet Letter. (The allusions, both apparent and those that are a bit more concealed, were strong enough to make me want to go reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s magnum opus.)
The problem became, while I was intrigued and captivated by the first half of the novel, that level of enthusiasm wasn’t sustained throughout the second half. While the beginning of the book introduces a series of ethical and moral dilemmas, ranging from tangled relationships and a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body to how criminals should be punished, the second half devolves into a mere love-story.
In the not so distant from now future, Hannah Payne is raised within the boundaries of a strict, religious family. The only world she knows of is the one her parents allow her to see. That is, until she falls in love with the preacher of the mega-church her family attends- the married preacher of the mega-church her family attends. When he returns her affections (and more!) and she becomes pregnant, she knows she can’t reveal the identity of the baby’s father, so rather than having the child, she decides it is best for all involved to have an abortion. In this future, abortion is illegal, punishable by a many years long sentence. (Prisons had become too pricey for the government to run, so other than the very worst of criminals, the punished are injected a virus that turns their skin a bright color- red for murderers- that identifies them as a felon. They are then released back into the public, where they must find a way to survive the ongoing hatred meted out to them by the state’s citizens.)
Hannah, now a “red,” must find a way to survive her term of coloration. After a failed attempt through a halfway-type house, she decides to make a run for the Canadian border, where she will be protected. It is at the point that the higher-minded discussion of women’s rights and unduly harsh punishment drop by the wayside and the story becomes a mere romance.
Maybe Jordan decided that the issues were just too big and too overwhelming to tackle in a young adult book. (Although, if she felt that way, I am not sure why she started down the path to begin with. Why not make it an adult novel and see those subjects through? Or if it was YA that she really wanted to create, why not choose a single subject and do it justice?) Whatever happened, I was sorely disappointed when Hannah’s storyline became more about seeing the man who would have been the father of her child rather than the societal problems that were the foundations of the novel.
I really struggled with how many shells to award this book, but because I would give the first half a solid four and the second half a generous two, I am going to split the difference. Hillary Jordan’s book When She Woke earns: