Characters live on after the book ends

September 18, 2009 at 5:43 am

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Welcome, multi-published author and long-time high school English teacher Paula Reed.  Her upcoming book Hester will be published by St. Martin’s Press in February 2010. Support Paula’s Denver Writers team with a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation by clicking here.

There is that classic question people ask writers:  Where do you get your ideas?  And the classic writers’ response: We don’t know.  For my latest novel, Hester, which is being released in February 2010, I know exactly where I got my ideas: Nathaniel Hawthorne and my classroom.

You see, I’ve been an English teacher for over twenty years, and for over half of them, I have taught The Scarlet Letter.  Ask any student who has had me as their sophomore English teacher in the last twenty years, and I guarantee that this is the novel they remember most in my class.  I know this because last year a student bounced up to me on the first day of class and said, “Mrs. Reed, you taught my mother!” (Her mother?  Am I really that old?)  “She said she’ll never forget The Scarlet Letter.  It’s one of her favorite books.”

Hands-down, my favorite class to teach is American Literature. My favorite unit? The Puritans. My favorite lecture? Calvinism. (How pathetic is that? I have a favorite lecture. And it’s on Calvinism.) My favorite book? Well, it’s not a part of the Puritan unit; it’s in the Romantics, but can you guess it? That’s right. I hand out copies of Hawthorne’s classic work and tell the kids that they must do their best to love it as much as I do. Barring that, they must pretend to. A colleague once told me that whenever she thought of Hester, she pictured me, and my dark-haired, dark-eyed daughter as the mischievous Pearl. (For the record, my daughter was always much better behaved.)  Sooner or later, it had to happen.  I had to write about this book.

As wonderful as the original work is, with its effusive, rich, and vivid prose, its compelling characters (specifically Hester and Roger), and its timeless moral (you should have been in my class the year I taught this and the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit), it is marked by Hawthorne’s great affliction. That is to say, it is a romance with a strong and vibrant heroine and a dud as a hero. (If you doubt that this is a pervasive Hawthornean flaw, read “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”  Do I sound like your high school English teacher, yet?)

And my students have asked the same questions over the years.  For pity’s sake, what did Hester Prynne ever see in Arthur Dimmesdale? After all, Roger is no peach, but he is a serious scholar who dabbles in black magic. That, at least, is interesting, but Arthur is a dishonest man who cares more for his image than his character, though he doesn’t have the strength to just accept that about himself. He isn’t even intellectually rigorous, Hawthorne tells us. His only virtues are his gifts for empathy and public speaking—not usually the sexiest traits (but don’t tell high school speech kids that). This is a relationship that needs further explanation if the reader is to believe that Hester has a modicum of self-respect.

There is also that big gap in the novel, those years between when Hester and Pearl depart from New England and when Hester returns alone. For a reader who has invested her heart in Hester, it is a gap that begs filling. She is such a magnificent creation, and she gets such a raw deal. Enter my affinity for a happy ending. Now, I would never dream of changing the destiny Hawthorne had given Hester. She is, after all, his creation, but it seemed to me that it was not exactly blasphemous to tweak the way that ending feels. And what about Pearl? After an entire novel in which this child is nothing but a symbol, Hawthorne breaks the spell and sets her free to be a real human being, then tells us nothing of her life. What sort of woman would Hester Prynne raise? How would Pearl look back on her one-dimensional, symbol-of-sin years? So many questions left unanswered…

So where did I get the idea for this book?  In my classroom, of course.  And where did the meat of it come from?  Thousands of questions asked by thousands of teens, hence the dedication in the front of the book:

To all my students over the years who have read The Scarlet Letter with me and loved it…or pretended to love it…or at least resisted the lure of SparkNotes and read every word Hawthorne wrote.  I love you.
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Writing with kids and life… Kick to the end


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