At our first back to school inservice day this week, a colleague approached me in a flurry of excitement. “I have a question for you! Wait here!” she exclaimed, as she rushed over to her school bag. Curious as to her inquiry, I did wait there, and she quickly returned with the name of a book on a piece of paper and a story that went with it.
The book in question was When She Woke by Hillary Jordan. She asked if I’d read it and what my thoughts were. I hadn’t, so she went on to elaborate the situation while I began to search Goodreads. When She Woke is a dystopian novel set in a future America not that dissimilar from Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. In this world, criminals are not held in prison, but rather “chromed,” a process in which their skin and hair is dyed a certain color that matches the type and severity of their crime. They’re then released into the general population to live their lives in exile, or suffer the consequences of vigilante justice. After a pandemic of a “super” sexually transmitted disease renders a large percentage of the population sterile, strict laws are put into effect about reproductive health, including the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. The novel chronicles the story of a young woman, Hannah Payne, after she finds herself “chromed” red for having an illegal abortion to terminate a pregnancy resulting from the affair she had with the married pastor of the mega-church she attends.
There’s a lot to unpack there, and though I hadn’t read the book, I was immediately intrigued by the premise and the obvious parallels to both Handmaid’s Tale and The Scarlet Letter. The reason the book had my colleague all worked up however, was that she had a friend whose daughter was asked to read the book as part of her freshman English curriculum at her private Christian high school. As I am the freshman English teacher in my school district, my colleague wanted to know if this was a book that I would assign? I didn’t know, but I had to find out, so I reserved a copy at the public library that moment, and told her I’d have an answer by next week’s workshop days.
I started the book yesterday afternoon, and I’m cruising through it. It’s not a difficult read, though the social, political, religious, and sexuality issues that the story is wrapped around are certainly difficult to dissect. The parallels to The Scarlet Letter are keenly felt from the first page when you meet Hannah Payne, today’s Hester Prynne, and on into her passionate affair with Reverend Aidan Dale (not to be confused with Prynne’s lover, Aruthur Dimmesdale). As a literature student in college, this is the kind of pairing that a professor would have assigned with a twelve page paper requirement analyzing the connections between and cultural relevance of the two texts. And I’m sure that’s part of the reason that a high school English teacher somewhere assigned the book to his or her class. But would I have made the same choice?
I’ve never been an advocate for censoring or banning literature in schools. I do believe literature should stretch you, move you, make you think and potentially get you out of your comfort zone. Teaching literature can be an excellent way to explore ideas that push us while in a safe space that allows for discussion, questions, and critical thought. But there have to be some limits. Fifty Shades of Grey definitely pushed people out of their comfort zone and started some interesting conversations. That didn’t make it appropriate for the classroom!
I will reserve my final judgement on whether or not I’d teach it until I finish the book, but I have the initial sense that between the C*** word, the slightly graphic, adulterous sex scenes, and the uncomfortable backroom abortion, I probably wouldn’t do it. But it’s a book that I think will stick with me, and a story that shakes me a little bit when considered how much of the storyline was built on fringe elements of our own society. And we need books like this. We need to talk about them, in appropriate and productive situations. This strikes me as an AP literature read, or better suited to the college classroom, and though I think it’s not for me to be teaching, I do hope it’s being taught somewhere. Because The Scarlet Letter undoubtedly received the same treatment when it was published, and it shouldn’t have to take a book 250 years for a book to become relevant.
So what’s the book that hasn’t left you? What’s the one you wish was taught, but wasn’t, or should be and isn’t? Leave me comment and let me know! I might not be the teacher to start teaching it, but I am the teacher that loves being shaken by a good read!
Friday kudos to…
My colleague who tipped me off to When She Woke this week. I look forward to our follow-up conversation next week.
Everyone in our theater during Mamma Mia 2 this week, including the women to my left who sang along with every musical number and the group to our right that sobbed through the ending. It’s good to just share joy with people.
Those who continue to share the gINKgo project. We’ve reached over 100 notes shared this summer including notes in at least three different states and three different countries.
Wine for your weekend
Hogue Late Harvest Reisling – Columbia, Washington
I cheated and started drinking this wine on Thursday, but that’s mostly because I’m running a half marathon this weekend, so had to do my weekend drinking early so that my system is clear and ready for the race! I learned an interesting fun fact about reisling while reading the back of the bottle in preparation for today’s review. Reisling needs to be fermented cold, so Hogue Cellars harvests their grapes at night when it is cooler to better draw out the natural flavors and aromas of the fruit. Does it work? It must, because this wine was rich and flavorful with strong notes of tangerine and apricot. It was flowery on the nose, with a sweet aroma that hinted towards peach. As a reisling, the wine was sweet, but paired well with the bright acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic, and cool creaminess of the mozzarella in the caprese salad I paired with it. Highly drinkable and reasonably priced, this is an easy recommendation on a wine that will please most palettes.