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Book Reviews: Hester: The Missing Years of the The Scarlet Letter by Paula Reed, and Angel and Apostle by Deborah Noyes

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At the conclusion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter we know that the detested Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynnne's husband, deprived of his revenge, “withered up, shrivelled away and almost vanished from mortal sight,” dying within the year. He did, however, leave Pearl great wealth in his will, allowing her to go to Europe with her mother Hester and make a wealthy marriage.

Eventually returning to her cottage by the sea on the outskirts of Boston, Hester is this time a source of comfort and solace to other women, and resumes wearing the scarlet letter, which becomes a symbol of help. When she dies, she is buried next to Pearl's father Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and they share a simple tombstone inscribed "On a field, sable, the letter A gules." Though nobody knows Pearl's fate, we presume — because letters with seals of heraldry arrive for Hester and articles of luxury are found in her cottage — that she married well and had at least one child. In addition, Hester is seen embroidering baby garments – and most un-Puritan-like garments, at that.

Does this scenario portend a schlocky grand-"demon offspring" and a sequel? Most certainly not, but a classic may appeal to our natural inclination to fill in the gaps, account for “the lost years,” chronicle what we think is too open-ended a conclusion – or, for that matter, simply demands our attention because we just can’t seem to leave well enough alone. Into the breach of the Prynne family legend and legacy steps Deborah Noyes who, in 2005’s Angel and Apostle, takes up the dénouement and extends the story – mostly Pearl’s story from childhood into adulthood – from her perspective. And now Paula Reed, in Hester: The Missing Years of the The Scarlet Letter, focuses on mother Prynne as the author follows Hester and Pearl after they depart Boston and ship back over the Atlantic again.

While Angel and Apostle offers an interspersed crash course of such major Scarlet Letter events as Hester's punishment of holding her baby on the scaffold, refusal to name the baby's father, the intervention of the minister to allow Hester to keep her child, and the relationship of the minister with a doctor who connotes evil, it also is written with literary heft, and is beautifully expressive and lyrical in language and style that parallels the Hawthorne tenor and sensibility. In Scarlet Letter, Hester “had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods.” Similarly, though more urgently in this case, Angel sees the ostracized seven-year-old Pearl escape the taunts and the abuse from other children, finding a familiar refuge:

It was the Lord's Day, and we were idle — I with the sting of stones at my back, they shrieking like brats possessed.  Because I knew that no pack of holy pygmies would brave the wood without master or mother, I ran and ran, willing myself be an otter and the shade be water. How cool it was and dark, my wilderness. How sweetly it repelled them.

It was in these getaways that the willful and free-spirited Pearl meets a young blind boy named Simon Milton, whose dying mother is attended to by Hester. Simon finds an understanding soul in the precocious Pearl, and Pearl finds someone who is accepting of her as she is. It’s a refreshing change from her tense relationship with her neglectful mother — Pearl’s first memory is of being rescued from sea by Dimmesdale after Hester had cast her off to drown. Noyes is unflinching in presenting such details in matter-of-fact manner.

As their friendship develops, Pearl grows closer to Simon, though she ultimately marries his brother Nehemiah. Due to the plotting and planning of Doctor Devlin, Dimmesdale’s physician, mother and daughter sail with the Milton family to England, where Hester will indenture herself for seven years. As for Pearl, she finds her irresponsible ways will gain her hardships, lose her friends, and  offer her bitter life lessons as she matures and moves on.

In England, too, life becomes more complicated. Hester is freed from the scarlet “A,” but it is emblazoned on her soul and she never recovers from her shame. Pearl remains curious about her father’s true identity and about Doctor Devlin’s interest in mother and daughter’s welfare. Her life – no longer one of carefree escape and solitude — is made a little thorny when she finds herself torn between her husband and Simon. This can't be easy for a someone who still finds it difficult to recognize and surmount barriers between what she desires and what she has.

As Noyes depicts and explores Pearl's encroaching adult complexities, the author meets and overcomes the challenge of interweaving a well-considered explication of the “elf-child’s” search for acceptance and wisdom. Moreover, putting the story into a broader context, the evolving character of Pearl and her continuing independent spirit and character must be measured against the apprehensions intrinsic to a life lived under a theocracy.

The reconstruction of time and place, of an era and its ideas, is of course enriched by such philosophies as Puritan-style life and death, salvation and sin, and reiterated by Noyes’ redolent, poetic language. But while Angel subtly explores universal themes within such a provincial setting, readers will be reminded that the age-old character-based theme of love and its aftermath, no matter how ancient, gives the story an overriding personal and current   perspective, too.

While Angel and Apostle is a character-driven story, Paula Reed’s debut novel Hester can be described as an historical novel that furthers its implausible ends by exploiting the Scarlet Letter main character as some kind of Super Sorceress. Looking forward to getting a fresh start, Hester uses the money Pearl has inherited to travel back to England with her eight-year-old daughter. But a changed nation is now under the repressed rule of Cromwell, and that does not bode well for events to come.

Reuniting and moving in with her childhood friend Mary Wright, she and Pearl are just getting settled in when Mary’s husband Robert returns from battle in Ireland, and things heat up. He’s a member of Cromwell's inner circle, and he has told the Protector of Hester's rare gift of second sight in which she is able to detect the sin of anyone she looks upon, ferreting out hypocrites and adulterers. Cromwell uses her to seek out traitors and send many to the Tower. Since sorcery carries a death sentence, Hester is constrained to assist Cromwell. As Cromwell becomes more paranoid, however, Hester falls in with a band of Royalists attempting to restore the monarchy, and she find herself increasingly entrenched in scheming, espionage, and forbidden love. A dashing libertine is quite the irresistible diversion in ruthless times!

As much as Hester’s plot is problematic — perhaps squeak-on-by enjoyable if you want to suspend disbelief sky-high – so is the flat characterization and prosaic language, especially in relation to how Noyes used both in Angel. Noyes imbued Hester and Pearl with an intriguing mystique that makes both characters suitably inscrutable – and hard to "unpuzzle" — at times. If, in Angel, Hester stoically chooses not even to communicate with seven-year-old Pearl to the extent of unresponsiveness to inquiries if she is loved, it is more in Hawthorne’s literary furtherance than whatever is constituted in Hester’s hand-wringing ma who pines that her daughter never talks to her.

And Angel never descended into such a Hester-style combo of you-complete-me chick-lit-ese and bodice-ripper emoting as when Hester “went to the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale for counsel.”

He understood so entirely; it was as if we were two halves of the same soul, two halves drawn inexorably together toward completion. Once released, the passion was far from spent. It intensified and seemed to distill into an elixir, infusing itself into the blood of the child it had produced.

Some counsel. In any case, I’m sure that, as a sequel of sorts to Hawthorne’s classic, the movie rights to Hester will be picked up by the people who did that fine 1995 Demi Moore film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. You know, the one with the shower scene.

 

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