In a future United States, a scourge has caused pandemic infertility. Abortion is against the law, and when Hannah Payne is caught, she is imprisoned in the “Chrome Ward” where she (as well as other prisoners) are videotaped for public humiliation. After a month of public display, she is released to try to start life anew.
Melachroming is a part of punishment for criminals. They are injected with a virus that makes their skin a color related to their crime. Hannah wakes up entirely red—crimson from head to toe—because she is a murderer. She must remain so for sixteen years. Her punishment is for ten years, but because she refuses to name the abortionist or the father of the unborn baby, three years are tacked on for each. Should she try to flee once her month-long sentence in the Chrome Ward is up, she will die—‘frag out’ as they say in the book. She has another virus implanted that will start to cause mental derangement if she doesn’t go in for her regular sessions to be re-chromed.
Hannah doesn’t name the father of the baby because he is her minister. He is widely known as a holy man and does a lot of good work for the impoverished. Hannah doesn’t want to see that work stopped. If all of these direct connections to The Scarlet Letter don’t grab you, the quote from that novel at the beginning of the book is another big hint. This is a future dystopia with a Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmsdale (here simply Reverend Dale) working out their sins over video mail.
When Hannah is released from the Chrome Ward, her mother, a very strict, upright Christian, refuses to take her in. She must go to a halfway house run by a (extremely self-righteous and voyeuristic) Christian couple. Only capable of taking so much humiliation, Hannah flees, and, being sought by anti-abortion terrorists, finds herself in the arms of a pro-choice underground group. Ironically, what they have in common with the unforgiving Christians is that they, too, are unwavering in their beliefs. They will not let anything get in the way of their mission.
Although Hannah does question her decision to have an abortion, just as she questions her strict religious upbringing, ultimately—just as with Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter—she feels more sinned against than sinning and rejects the moral certitude of those who torment her.
I would love to talk about the end of this book with someone who has also read The Scarlet Letter. When She Woke would be a great read for teens who are looking for literary readalikes. However, here’s a caveat: This novel is not for everyone; I can say with certainty that conservative Christians will object to the content and to the outcome. It’s for mature, older teens, not the middle school set. Mature topics and situations appear throughout the book.