November 11, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Hillary Jordan's When She Woke is part modern day retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, part indictment of right wing politics. This story set in a future America where theocracy rules is as intense and compelling as it is haunting.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Jordan blends hot-button issues such as separation of Church and State, abortion, and criminal justice with an utterly engrossing story, driven by a heroine as layered and magnetic as Hester Prynne herself, and reminiscent, too, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Absolutely a must-read."
When She Woke is set in a dystopian, right-wing America of the near future in which all but the most violent felons are punished by being "chromed" (having their skin vividly colored to match their crime) and then released to survive as best they can in a hostile world. A riff on The Scarlet Letter, the novel centers on a young Texan woman named Hannah Payne who's made a Red after having an abortion, which is illegal in my future Texas and most other states. The pregnancy was the result of an illicit love affair with Aidan Dale, the very charismatic and married pastor of the mega-church Hannah belongs to. She's convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to spend 16 years as a Red.
Spoiler alert: I'm giving a LOT away below so if you haven't read the book, hold off on reading this blog.
"Somebody's Watching Me" by Rockwell
The book opens in the Chrome Ward of the Crawford State Prison, where Hannah spends the first 30 days of her sentence. She wakes after being injected with the virus that turns her skin red to find herself in a mirrored cell where her movements are filmed and broadcast to the public in a sinister form of reality TV. Aware that she's being observed—that her family and her lover could be watching her at any moment—she tries to remain calm, but the confinement, solitude and self-reflection, both literal and figurative, slowly start to drive her crazy . . . The Rockwell verses of this song are obviously tongue in cheek, but I've always thought that the refrain sung by Michael Jackson had a wonderfully sinister, mad edge to it.
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Roberta Flack
Hannah, in the Chrome Ward, remembers the first time she met Aidan, at the hospital where her father was being treated for injuries sustained in a terrorist attack. In that scene, she walks in the room to find Aidan kneeling by her father's bed praying for his recovery. When their gazes meet for the first time, she feels a seismic shifting inside of her that I think this song (surely one of the most beautiful, haunting love songs ever written) conveys perfectly.
"Dark End of the Street" by Aretha Franklin
This song captures the dark , illicit side of Hannah's love for Aidan: the anguish and shame of being with a married man, which are compounded by the fact that she's deeply religious and he's a man of God. There are many versions of this song, but I don't think anyone ever sang it better than Aretha—but then, I could say that about almost every song she ever recorded.
"Precious Lord Take My Hand by Mahalia Jackson
This song, which I found an old video of on YouTube, is a naked plea for union with God, sung to devastating effect by an elderly, plainly exhausted Mahalia. It reflects Hannah's longing for God's love and mercy, which she feels she has lost, on the day she leaves the Chrome Ward and is taken by her father to the Straight Path Center, a halfway house for women Chromes run by a Christian fundamentalists.
"The Oompa Loompa Song" from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, the orange-skinned Oompa Loompas and their creepy song have always unsettled me. They pop into Hannah's mind on her first day at the Straight Path Center; like them, she feels she's a freak.
"Lean On Me" by Bill Withers
The Straight Path Center proves to be a twisted and cruel place, and Hannah's hopes begin to wither. Her one consolation is Kayla, a fellow Red who befriends Hannah her first day at the center and buoys her during her moments of sorrow and despair. I've loved this song, which is deceptively simple, since I was a little girl. What would any of us do without dear friends to throw us a spar when we're drowning?
"Rain" by Patty Griffin
Listening to this song makes me want to curl into a fetal ball. Which is how Hannah feels as she walks to her sister's house in the rain and begins to realize how despised and vulnerable she will be as a Red.
"Anything Goes" by Ella Fitzgerald
Hannah hears Ella for the first time in Kayla's car and marvels, as I always have, at the miraculous beauty of her voice. I used this song in particular because the lyrics— "The world has gone mad today and good's bad today and black's white today . . ."—speak to the craziness and perversion of the world Hannah lives in. Not to mention our own.
"Red Red Wine" by UB40
Hannah, having been rescued by a group calling themselves the Novembrists from vigilantes led by her brother-in-law, has a despondent Christmas in a "safe house" with Kayla and their rescuers. Almost everything Hannah loves has been taken from her, and so, for the first time, she has gets drunk . . . on red wine. There are many great songs about drinking and forgetting—Willie's "Whiskey River," Amos Lee's "Black River," John Lee Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer"—but usually there's liquor (which is quicker) involved. This song, which is from my college days and which I've always found sort of hypnotic, captures the dreamy drunkenness of too much red, red wine.
"Take Another Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin
Hannah, still in the safe house, is devastated when she sees Aidan on television looking radiantly happy despite the fact that she's a Chrome and no longer in his life. We've all felt this, this feeling of betrayal by someone we're still not over who is evidently doing just dandy without us. Janis captured it so eloquently: "You're out on the street, looking good, and baby deep down in your heart you know that it ain't right." And it ain't.
"Lady in Red" by Chris de Burgh
This is one of those songs, like "When a Man Loves a Woman," that makes me want to meet the guy who wrote it. Or actually (since presumably this man is in a seriously committed relationship), his single twin brother. Hannah and Aidan reunite. . . and I'm not giving away any more than that.
"Let's Just Kiss and Say Goodbye"
Now I'm really giving away the ending! This song has a wistful element but at the same time is ruthlessly practical; you don't sense the singer wavering in his resolve. Which is how Hannah feels when she tells Aidan they can't be together. Walking away from someone you love is one of the most difficult things there is, and for Hannah it's even harder, because Aidan is her first love. But as the song says, she has ties, and so does he. And recognizing that is a huge part of her growth.
"Let It Snow" by Nat King Cole and Dean Martin, from Christmas with Nat and Dean
Hannah is heading north, to Canada, and the snow is slowing her journey, but she soon realizes it's also doing her a favor and concealing her. I love the innocent joy of this song.
"I'm Free" - Tom Petty
And she is. Enough said.
Hillary Jordan and When She Woke links:
The Book Smugglers review
Books on the Nightstand review
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Devourer of Books review
Edmonton Journal review
Globe and Mail review
Richmond Times-Dispatch review
The Setonian review
Washington Independent Review of Books review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists