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Color her world Hillary Jordan delves into the 'gray areas' of life in her new novel, 'When She Woke'

Hillary Jordan can pinpoint the moment she first felt the stirring of the book that would become "When She Woke."

It was the 1990s. She was having dinner with an uncle in Maine when the conversation turned to drug offenders and the criminal justice system.

Her uncle said that he could envision a system in which people could use drugs as much as they wanted -- if they were somehow marked with a color, like bright blue, to let people around them know who they were.

"In other words: get as high as you want, but people will be able to see you coming," said Jordan, on the phone with The Buffalo News from her New York City apartment.

"That stuck with me for a long time."

Jordan, whose first novel, "Mudbound," was a New York Times best seller, will appear in Buffalo to talk about her new novel at 7 p.m. Tuesday, in an event hosted by Talking Leaves bookstore and taking place inside Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave.

The author has never been to Buffalo -- Batavia was the closest she got, when "Mudbound" was selected as a community read by librarians there last spring -- but she said she is excited by her chance to visit the city and perhaps even sneak in a side trip to Niagara Falls.

"It was pretty cold the last time I was there, in March. It was sleeting!" she said of upstate New York.

"When She Woke" takes the idea Jordan discussed with her Uncle John -- what if committing a crime meant you were turned another color and ostracized by society? -- and spins it into a 341-page novel that is part futuristic fantasy, part fairy tale, and part retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic American tale, "The Scarlet Letter."

"The book is kind of a dark fable," said Jordan, who grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, graduated from Wellesley College and received her MFA from Columbia University in 2004.

Set in what Jordan calls a near future -- "I don't really say what year the book is set in, but I imagined it as about 35 or 40 years in the future" -- the book portrays an American society that has taken a turn toward an oppressive form of governmental control.

People convicted of crimes are turned colors through a process called "melachroming" -- they are called "Chromes" as a social class -- and are shunned by most people in society. Rapists, for instance, are turned vivid purple until their sentence is served; child molesters, blue; those convicted of smaller offenses, yellow. And people who have been convicted of murder are turned bright red. ("Red" was Jordan's working title for the book.)

Jordan said she drew some of her inspiration for the idea of "chroming" as a penalty for crime from Hawthorne, whose heroine famously wore a scarlet "A" on her dress to mark her as an adulteress and fornicator in Puritan New England.

"I was really struck by the parallels between Hawthorne's 17th century Boston and our modern society," said Jordan, who reread the classic novel during her work on "When She Woke."

Other inspiration came from modern-day approaches in the criminal justice arena, Jordan said -- including Megan's Law.

"In the criminal justice system, there's been a turning away from rehabilitation to a kind of punishment culture. Prisons have gone from rehabilitating criminals to creating crime," she said. "Megan's Law is ... identifying child molesters in the neighborhoods they live in. On the one hand, if someone messed with my kid, I'd get out my shotgun. On the other hand, there's something disturbing there that's happening."

The protagonist of "When She Woke," Hannah Payne, comes into the story as a modern-day twist on Hawthorne's Hester Prynne -- note the twinned initials -- and wakes from a melachroming process to find herself bright red.

Hannah's crime, we soon learn, is that she had an abortion, which is against the law in this future version of America. Hannah cannot -- and will not -- name the father of her baby, in part because he is a prominent and respected member of society. (His initials, by way of a hint, are "A.D." -- a nod to the minister Arthur Dimmesdale of Hawthorne's novel. And later on, when Hannah gives a name to the baby she never had, she chooses Pearl -- again, a la Hawthorne's heroine.)

Hannah's journey includes attempts at social rehabilitation; participation in "halfway house" activities; a separation from her family and connection with an Underground Railroad-type organization that promises to spirit her out of the country; and more dilemmas and escapes. She suffers; she makes new friends; she grows into a strong woman.

While Jordan admits her book won't please all audiences, it's easy to see that it won't satisfy all of them, as well. It's a complicated tale.

Some groups and characters in the novel -- members of a hard-boiled Southern fundamentalist sect, for instance -- come off in an unflattering light. Other scenes, such as one where Hannah undergoes the abortion that causes her criminal status, are equally horrifying.

"I think it's agonizing for people to go through that. It made me really think about it," said Jordan. "When I was writing the book, it forced me to examine my own entrenched ideas about things. I hope the book makes people think about their own opinions, their own entrenched ideas."

In particular, Jordan said she didn't want to make any decisions for the reader as to what is right and what is wrong.

Rather, she said, her goal was to show that in all areas of human existence and moral behavior that we argue about today, there are gray areas to think about.

"One of the things we've forgotten how to do is look at things from different sides," she said. "I tried to show the complexity -- the gray areas -- in everything."

"In our politics now, everything is reduced to black-and-white terms. There's no middle. But there's no hope of being able to work through these things if we don't respect the views of people who disagree."

In the end, Jordan's protagonist, who starts as a woman of faith, ends as a woman of faith.

It's a different kind of faith, to be sure, but that's because of her unlikely, Hawthorne-esque journey.

"I found myself really thinking a lot about faith, in ways I haven't thought about it," said Jordan, of writing the book.

"The main theme of the book is one of self-discovery."

email: cvogel@buffnews.com

WHEN SHE WOKE: A NOVEL

By Hillary Jordan

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

341 pages, $25

> A literary week

Two major authors are appearing in Buffalo this week. (A third, Western New York native Joyce Carol Oates, was scheduled to appear at Canisius College on Monday but rescheduled for 8 p.m. Nov. 28.)

Hillary Jordan, winner of the Bellwether Prize for her first novel, "Mudbound," will read from and sign her latest work, "When She Woke," at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Hallwalls in Babeville, 341 Delaware Ave. Admission is free; books will be available for purchase. The event is sponsored by Talking Leaves Books.

Award-winning Israeli author Amos Oz opens Just Buffalo Literary Center's 2012 Babel series at 8 p.m. Thursday at Kleinhans Music Hall, 3 Symphony Circle. Oz will be discussing his memoir, "A Tale of Love and Darkness." Tickets, $35 ($25 with a library card; discounts for three or more tickets), are available through www.justbuffalo.org.