Discussion: A New World in Part 1 of When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

In When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, we’re introduced to a world in which extremism and religious fundamentalism rule and our protagonist, Hannah Payne, has been sentenced to 16 years of “chroming” or skin colouring for the crime of having had an abortion.

In When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, we’re introduced to a world in which extremism and religious fundamentalism rule and our protagonist, Hannah Payne, has been sentenced to 16 years of “chroming” or skin colouring for the crime of having had an abortion. In Part 1 of our discussion, we read pages 1-80 of this riveting dystopian novel and wonder how far off a world like this might actually be from our own.

Laurie: Hello! So, we head into the crazy, restricted world of When She Woke by Hillary Jordan this week.

Stacy: Hi ladies. I’m excited! Not necessarily to, y’know, be in that world. But I love this book!

Alex: Hi! It is just incredible.

Laurie: I loved it, too, but it’s so the kind of thing that makes my blood boil.

Alex: I felt the same way — it’s also really tapping into a new way of exploring feminism.

Laurie: What do you love about it generally to start?

I’m totally in love with future dystopias, so we already started on the right foot.

I love how isolated Hannah is but how seamlessly Jordan integrates her life and how easily she fills in those details. It just flowed so effortlessly; it’s so well crafted.

Laurie: I loved how easily Jordan moved from one time frame to the other. Really well done.

Stacy: But I also love Hannah as a character. I find rulebreakers incredibly interesting (maybe because I’m so not one myself??). Laurie, I so agree.

Laurie: Yes, she’s interesting because she’s not an out-and-out rebel. She’s more subtle than that. I love the questions she has for her parents. Things like the stuff about the dinosaurs and the ark.

Yeah, she tries to do what her family thinks is right. But she’s a little out of step with their values.

Alex: And the fact that we see her as a rebel tells you how much we have bought into the world created by Jordan. Because in the real world she’s really not that much of a rebel.

Laurie: No, not at all. But she does question. And anyone who questions is potentially a rebel.

Stacy: Alex, that’s so true. For us, her little “disobediences” are nothing.

Alex: Also, I think the way she drops those details about this futuristic world is just so subtle.

Stacy: Yes! But so realistic.

Alex: And so even for someone who doesn’t like fantasy-type stuff, it was so neatly done, I swallowed it all up and wanted more. It was more believable than other books I’ve read based in reality.

Stacy: Jordan has done a really good job of world-building. I can see how the upsurge in extreme right wingers in the U.S. could lead to this world.

Laurie: It’s interesting, though, because I couldn’t quite figure out if everyone lives, or is expected to live, the way she or her family do, or if there are more lax rules for non-religious types, re. dress, etc. Did you feel the same?

Alex: I feel like there are two “schools.” It made me think of Mennonites, and how when you visit St. Jacobs, Ont, two cultures are so visible. But it’s more extreme than that.

Stacy: I think it’s universally more conservative than we are now, but I don’t think everyone lives like the Paynes do.

Laurie: That’s what I felt was so realistic. I could so see how the fundamentalists and extreme right could lead to this sort of world. I think there are people right now exactly like the Paynes. And I don’t mean the Mennonites.

Stacy: Yes, Laurie. I agree completely.

Alex: Exactly. I was thinking about them just because of the clothing. It’s a visual symbol of their religion, and when she talks about making her dresses, it really brought home to me how restricted she is, knowing she’s putting in all that work to never show anyone.

Stacy: Oh, my heart totally broke about that.

Laurie: And yet it’s funny, because those dresses and making them bring her a kind of peace. Having them provides enough of an outlet that she can accept the other restrictions.

It’s like she’s living in an imaginary world while she’s making them.

Stacy: For me, she’s an artisan creating something truly beautiful, but that talent isn’t ever going anywhere.

Because she’s a woman in a time when women’s roles have reverted back to the 50s.

Laurie: It’s so awful: the scenes with her brother-in-law and how he gets her sister under his thumb.

Stacy: UGH. Cole.

Alex: I hated him.

Me, too — like, an instant, visceral hate.

Laurie: His stupid belt buckles and lariats, and Becca can’t even have her little opal earrings. And that situation, too, was so realistically portrayed, I thought.

Alex: It’s horrendous.

Stacy: But what was worse for me was that her parents didn’t even bat an eyelash. It’s one thing for him to be awful, but for the girls’ parents to push Becca towards him, accept him into the family…

Alex: Absolutely. It’s so sad.

Laurie: I know! I think it was at a time when the father was ill and weak, and it started with not wanting to be impolite and disagree with Cole. That’s why it’s always important to speak up when you think someone has said something wrong.

Alex: I was reading it picturing my grandparents’ 1950s home.

Stacy: That’s true, there was definitely that aspect. I was just obsessed with the rate at which she revealed information, and at times I was so absorbed I found it hard to believe I was reading third person. Laurie, it’s like that quote: “First they came for the Jews and I stayed silent…”

Alex: That’s the perfect example.

Stacy: Yes. Because eventually, they’ll come for you.

Stacy: I think that’s the lesson Hannah learns when she’s caught: as much as she was internally  questioning, she was still a good girl who did the right thing.

Alex: Exactly — it was so well executed.

Were you surprised who the father of Hannah’s baby was? Because some critics would say this book is derivative.

Stacy: I wasn’t. But maybe I’m jaded by the corruption in that whole mega-church world.

Alex: Hells yeah! I believed he was all righteous. I could not believe that he spoke to her in that way when they met at the hotel.

Laurie: Is he good? Bad? Just weak?

Stacy: Weak.

Alex: Human? But that’s the problem.

Stacy: The problem is that he’s set himself as more than human, better than human — maybe not more, but certainly better.

Laurie: But has he?

Stacy: I think so.

Alex: Most people would find that behaviour forgivable if he weren’t preaching to everyone else.

Or, Stacy, is that other people’s perceptions of him in the role he’s in? Does he actually present himself as better than everyone?

Alex: Being all holier than thou, he does seem uncomfortable with the attention at times, eh?

Stacy: But he still has to buy into it.

Alex: I am not sure — it sounds like other people have swallowed it and now he can’t turn back.

Laurie: I think he’s a man who wants to help others, but can’t help himself. But I can’t really forgive him for not turning himself in.

Stacy: I think that, whether he’s sometimes uncomfortable or not, he has to on some level believe that what he’s saying, what everyone needs to hear.

Alex: And he’s been put on a pedestal by desperate people.

Stacy: He’s like, the direct line to god. So yeah, others put him on that pedestal, but he’s not doing anything to take himself off.

Alex: I’m not sure, now that Laurie mentions it… maybe he’s not OK with it.

Laurie: I don’t think he’s that arrogant.

Alex: It feels like he’s the only one who can see that the system is flawed. And his wife?!?!?! She sounds like she is totally clued up. I think they have clarity.

Stacy: I feel so completely differently about this dude than you two! Haha!

Laurie: So you think he’s a bastard through and through, Stacy?

Stacy: I don’t think he’s a horrible person. Not really. But he’s weak, and his weakness has consequences for other people. And I do think that, on some level at least, he believes he deserves the position he’s in. Or maybe I find it hard to pity someone who isn’t brave enough to be honest.

I think it has spiraled out of his control, and people are so desperate to believe in something they’ve elevated him.

Laurie: I think he has a pretty clear understanding of human weakness, especially his own, but still succumbs. His wife isn’t an idiot, but can’t prevent the relationship. And people need things to believe in, even the wrong things.

Alex: What a frightening world that is.

Laurie: So awful and sad and vindictive because people are so scared they start to take it out on others.

Alex: It’s all about controlling people, in different ways, isn’t it? Those people think they’re choosing what to believe in and how to live.

Stacy: But they’re choosing it for everyone. They’re not just saying (like the Mennonites), “I’m going to live my own way.”

Alex: While the reds and the other people being punished are having this hugely restrictive life pushed on them.

Laurie: The more scared people are, the more they cling to beliefs and faith, I think.

Alex: Exactly. It’s awful.

Stacy: You have to believe there’s something bigger and better than you out there if you have so little autonomy yourself.

Laurie: Even to the exclusion of humility and forgiveness of others.

Stacy: It’s so sad, because, as you said Laurie, there are totally people living like this right now.

Well, it will be interesting to see what this house of sanctuary she’s entering is like. Will it be her salvation? Poor red girl.

Alex: I am nervous about it.

Stacy: I can’t help but hope so, but I’m nervous, too.

Alex: I can’t believe Aidan organized it and has had nothing to do with her. I am so angry at him for not standing by her.

Laurie: Weak, weak, man. Yay Dad, though! That scene was heart-breaking…

Yay Dad indeed. Can’t have been easy for him.

Stacy: But Aidan would have to sacrifice a lot to stand by her, right? His power, his congregation, his wife, his piousness…

God, if only they knew!! I WONDER IF IT COMES OUT…

Stacy: Although, a question for you ladies: did you think the family dynamics were a little clichéd? While reading I felt they were very real, but thinking about it now, I feel like I’ve seen them before.

Alex: I think that’s because they are realistic and reminiscent of the past.

I bet so many of the congregation are sinners. And re the family, I didn’t have a problem with it. I think more people might think, as I said before, that the book as a whole might be too derivative. But let’s read more than 80 pages before we decide that! And so, on to Part 2 next week, in which Hannah surrenders herself into the hands of others. See you then!

Stacy: Later, ladies! I’m excited to talk about the next part.

I can’t wait. Really cannot wait!