A woman of letters

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Columbine English teacher pens a sequel to 'The Scarlet Letter'

By Emile Hallez

  Columbine High School teacher Paula Reed had some issues with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter.” A 10-year chronological gap in the story prompted a horde of student questions in the two decades Reed has taught the material. And rather than leaving the questions unanswered, Reed has personally filled in the gap.

Reed recently authored “Hester: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter,” the story of the protagonist’s decade of absence from the original work’s setting in 17th-century New England.

“I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter’ for over 20 years. And so I have over 20 years of student questions about what might have happened to her,” Reed said. “Why would somebody as strong as Hester ever want to be with a guy as weak as Arthur Dimmesdale, the character who fathers her child, in the book? All those things were taken into account.”

Reed, who has been at Columbine since 1986, already had three published novels under her belt by the time she presented her agent with the manuscript for “Hester.”

“I love history,” said Reed, whose typical genre is historical romance. “I’d started writing really seriously as an escape. I started a romance novel in the ‘80s and got busy. I had kids. I was teaching, I was coaching.”

The teacher’s writing career went on hold while she taught English and other classes and raised her two children.

The school shootings in 1999 changed things. The shadow of the event assumed a ubiquitous presence at the school, and Reed needed something to breathe new life into the school’s haunted day-to-day environment.

“We were so immersed in it, those years after, that I just really needed an escape, and the past is a great way to do that, because the kinds of issues we were dealing with here were just not even remotely part of it,” she said. “It was a great way to escape. … I kind of wanted to get away from reality.”

Establishing a framework for the novel was straightforward, Reed said. A more difficult task in the tale’s construction was choosing a voice to adapt Hawthorne’s character to an original work.

“The nice thing about ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is that the historical events tell you exactly when that book takes place,” Reed said. “She is in England during the reign of Oliver Cromwell. … So if a woman were to flee New England to get away from puritans, England would not be the best place to go.”

Reed tells her story from the first-person point of view, a departure from Hawthorne’s third-person narrative. Doing so allowed for a different tone, one that let her fill in the original book’s missing years and provided a means to express the story in her own voice.

“My students loved the story. They hate reading the book. They find the language and the syntax and all of that very difficult,” she said of the original. “I tried to echo Hawthorne, so you feel like you are reading something that is the thoughts of a woman in the 17th century, but not imitate it.”

Though the book is a companion to a literary classic, Reed designed the story in a way that makes a prior reading of Hawthorne’s novel optional, not mandatory.

“If you have never read ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ or it has been many, many years, I will tell you in this book everything you need to know. So it can stand on its own. That was important when I wrote it.”

And while she teaches the material from “The Scarlet Letter” in class, she won’t be doing the same for her own book. Doing so would be a conflict of interest, she said.

And she cautions her students about the sex scenes.

“There’s not a lot of sex in it — it’s not a romance novel — but there is some,” she said. “I do tell kids, ‘If you’re going to freak out about sex scenes written by your English teacher, you probably don’t want to read it.’ ”

Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.


“Hester: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter”

306 pages, hard cover $24.99

The novel is available in local bookstores or through online retailers.