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.