I’ve had a lot of trouble trying to decide whether or not to recommend When She Woke to our customers. On one hand, it’s a quick, thought-provoking read that pulls you into its world within the first few pages. It would make a fantastic book club selection because there are so many parallels to our society, so many hints and echos of themes we see every day. On the other hand, the main plot line is about abortion. And that’s a really tough subject to tackle for someone looking for a quick, fun read.
The storyline of When She Woke is unabashedly inspired by The Scarlet Letter. In this futuristic society, prison space is at a premium, so most prisoners are let go — after their skin is molecularly changed to be one of a spectrum of bright colors that correspond to their crimes (red for murder, blue for pedophilia, etc.). Our protagonist is one of these “Chromes.” She’s a Red — her crime is abortion, or murder of a child.
The world of When She Woke is extraordinarily fundamentalist Christian, and the family Hannah Payne (the Hester Prynne of this book) grows up in is even stricter than most. But many of the “extreme” beliefs and actions that her family takes exist today in certain circles. I went to high school at one of the strictest evangelical academies in the nation, and almost everything Hannah went through is at least familiar, and sometimes a direct echo, of what I experienced there.
Although I enjoyed the book for the most part, I would have liked more space and time for the Hannah’s journey through the last quarter of the story (she makes decisions that would be so extreme for someone with her upbringing that I found it impossible she could emotionally deal with them as quickly as she does). Also, I found it odd that, although abortion is a main theme, the question of whether or not Hannah’s crime was actually murder is never really solved (to be fair, maybe that’s something we as readers should be expected to deal with on our own).
But, all in all, I’d recommend When She Woke, as long as you know what you’re getting into. It’s well-executed storytelling, and it would lead to some fantastic discussions for book groups.
Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.