Monday, December 17, 2012

How Did the Book Club Go? We Tackle Hillary Jordan's "When She Woke."

This month my book club write up got delayed a bit!

In the first few months of the in-store lit group, I was able to get somebody to come to every meeting. But by somebody, I mean one body, and it was a different person every time. I remember one nice discussion I had about Hillary Jordan's Mudbound with a nice young woman. This was before I tried to stick to the rule that I picked books I hadn't read yet. Now I use the group as a means to catch up on titles I wish I'd read; then I was panicking more over whether the book would be both good and discussable.

Now I rely on other sources to make my choices--fellow booksellers, both Boswell and otherwise, reviewers, and also regular attendees to the in-store lit group. Only one of the group had previously read Hillary Jordan's When She Woke, which she had read for another reading group. But there was a lot of bookseller enthusiasm. When She Woke was the #1 Indie Next pick for October 2011, and Algonquin had made the smart choice to release quotes from many of the other booksellers who nominated the title.

The story centers on Hannah Payne a young seamstress from Dallas raised with a strong religious bent. And while she lives in a world not so different from ours, there've been some changes. The uneasy red/blue state detente in government has been upended by the nuking of Southern California. Sovereignty of life laws have been enacted such that abortion is deemed murder in the law's eyes. And technology has advanced a bit too, most notably in chroming criminals. The country hasn't overcome its financial issues, however. Many criminals are released back into society, fending for themselves with their tint on their sleeves, so to speak, and easily tracked by the general public. They often die young.

But this story does not follow just any plotline. When She Woke is inspired by The Scarlet Letter, with Hannah Payne taking the role of Hester Prynne. She's fallen into an affair with a married preacher, in this case, Aidan Dale, who is now a national figure, Secretary of Faith. But instead of being branded as an adulterer, her crime is abortion, and abortion is murder, so she is chromed red. The chroming is actually a virus and is temporary, but just so you don't think you can figure out a way to go off the grid and hide, another virus is linked to the punishment, which will lead to fragging, a sort of brain encephalitis.

Hannah's family are split between sympathy (her father and sister) and revulsion (her mother and brother-in-law). It doesn't help that her brother-in-law is in a gang called The Fist which attacks chromes. Hannah first tries to survive in a convent-like rehabilitation center, but, needless to say, things come to a head, and she must leave, but not before making friends with a fellow fugitive.

When She Woke led to a spirited book club discussion. Things that some folks disliked about the book did not bother others, and I also became aware about how a discussion can tip when there are few strong opinions raised at the beginning of a discussion. That's why some groups ask folks to refrain from saying whether or not they liked a book for at least the first half of a discussion. But whether or not folks liked the book, When She Woke gave rise to several interesting conversations about novels and reading, author's intent, and what are the choices an author makes when he or she writes a story.

To note one, why exactly do authors write? Some folks hope to entertain, while others hope to educate--must books are a combination of the two, but don't tell me that you don't know which priority is uppermost in any particular writer's mind. Is an author raising philosophical questions or is he or she answering them? Jordan had to probably ask herself this question at one point, and that might have led her to make certain decisions about plot and character. If you are raising questions, you are likely to make the moral quandaries more complicated, the characters shaded a bit more gray. If you are answering them, you might be more likely to make sure the good and evil is a bit more pure.

There's a long history of such novels. One could say Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged all wear their heart on their sleeves (jacket sleeves). And of course the canon of feminist literature has many entries, including Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and most notably Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale that were issue centered.

But to me, this can be a harder book to successfully write than one that simply ponders. Characters might wander into cardboard territory. N. was talking to me about this with Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book changed a lot of minds about slavery, but (and mind you, I'm paraphrasing a quote here, and have never read the book) was unable to present a three-dimensional African American character in its pages. To her thinking, it's a novel that's hard to read in full nowadays, even in a classroom setting.

Despite Jordan's best intentions, at least one of our readers wanted even more social criticism built into the story . When R. proclaimed that the Jordan did not do enough to address the racial underclass, I contested that this is what the whole book was about. The country had claimed to transcend race (as it certainly did for about ten seconds after the election of President Obama) and yet, the country continued to judge people by their color. And of course Hannah's flight eventually led her to the equivalent of the Underground Railway. But there were other things, like brief interludes of LGBT awareness and spousal abuse that were so shimmeringly brief, that we wondered whether it might have been better to either strengthen their presence or eliminate them altogether (though I should note that the former might have led to a nom for the Lambda Literary Awards). 

And then there was the other issue that we confronted. Was this a remake of The Scarlet Letter, an homage, or a novel that used Nathaniel Hawthorne's book as its inspiration? Any author who is inspired by the classics has to ask that question and the story will travel in different directions, depending on that answer. While our bookseller Jane loved Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy, one of our customers felt that it hewed a bit too closely to Jane Eyre for her taste. At one point, should a book be true to source material or leave it behind?

So it was that Hannah and Reverend Aidan's romance was a sticking point in the story. Why did he stand by her when it was in his best interest to dump her? With all his other qualities, did it seem at all plausible that he'd be tempted to give everything up for Hannah? And why did she stand by him? And why was she not caught? The response of N when we asked these questions? "Well, that's the way it was in The Scarlet Letter," and we began to feel like Hawthorne had tightened the noose around Jordan's pen.

One of the interesting things about reaction to When She Woke was that the attendees who were most afraid of tackling science fiction were the ones who wound up most enjoying the book. I think we agreed that Jordan wrote a relatively fast-paced, entertaining story with a lot of interesting ideas. And both her speculations and even the lingo to accompany them were quite an achievement. If I can say one thing to potential book clubs, it would be to not fear venturing into unknown territory. It can make for the most rewarding reading experiences.

And just to end the post on a high note, here are some great reviews from both national media and fellow booksellers. And here's the link to The New York Times Book Review piece.

The upcoming reading list for the Boswell In-Store Lit group:

Monday, January 7, 7 pm: The Barbarian Nurseries, by Hector Tobar

Monday, February 4, 7 pm: Arcadia by Lauren Groff.

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