Witness by Karen Hesse.
Scholastic Press, New York, 2001.
Historical fiction novel in verse, 161 pages.
This book is not an award winner, but the author has won many awards.
Lexile: NP (What does NP mean in Lexile Levels? )
AR Level: 5.0 (Worth 2.0 points)
This free verse novel tells about when the Ku Klux Klan came to a small town in Vermont in 1924. The story is told through 11 different voices, some of them sympathetic to the KKK and others in great danger from this change. Two pivotal figures are 12-year-old Leanora Sutter, a gifted African-American, and Jewish 6-year-old Esther Hirsh. Although this book seems to be aimed at 5th-8th grade students, since the characters span such a wide age range, it could be used in high school as well.
I’m not fond of novels in verse. I love poetry and novels, but feel the combination usually sacrifices either poetic artistry or the craft of the novel. When I picked this book at the library (SM), I had no idea it was in verse. Once I opened it, the poor book languished, being read a few pages here and there while I whizzed through other books (autobiographies of Simone Biles and Trevor Noah). Finally I finished, then quickly re-read it for this review so I could return it.
My first reaction to Witness was “meh”, and I had trouble pinpointing why. Nothing was overtly wrong with the verses, the plot, or even the layout of the book. I narrowed it down to two problems. One was the lack of capitalization; the whole novel is written entirely in lowercase, including proper names. I’ve read e.e. cumings and loved Wonder, so I can live with some lowercase writing, but apparently not an entire book. This artistic decision might not bother most people, but grated on me.
The second was the characterization. Leanora, Esther, and Sara Chickering had fairly distinct voices and I was able to recognize who they were. The rest of the characters, particularly the men (aside from 18-year-old Merlin Van Tornhout), I found difficult to keep track of. The second time I read it in one sitting, so it was particularly noticeable that I was frequently flipping back to the cast of characters in the beginning. Without that page, I would have been completely lost.
There were advantages to the multiple narrator format. We got a good view of the entire town’s opinions. Certain events were shown from multiple viewpoints. This is not the story of any one person or group of people, it is the story of a town, and the small actions for good or bad that make up their town’s choice for good or evil.
Hesse is not an #ownvoice, but has written several books with Jewish characters. I felt she had stronger insights into Esther, even though Leanora was the ostensible main character of the novel.
After I had read this for the second time, I came across an article at the ALA which highlights the uses for this novel as a classroom read-aloud with ties to units on racism and the Holocaust. The author seems to feel that this book is intended as a reader’s theater in 11 voices and 5 acts (I would add a 12th voice to announce each reader and the acts).
As I read the article, my opinion of this book improved. If I was reading with a group of students, I would have no problem telling the characters apart. The frequent line breaks and very short selections by each character potentially make it easier for older students that struggle with reading. Do be prepared to discuss the use of the word negro in class.
Spoilers: The KKK perpetuate several acts of racial and religious hatred, and attempt others. At one point a character tries to get his 15-year-old girlfriend out of the orphanage to marry her, which struck me as weird, and I felt the plot points it served could have been met another way. There is a presumed, but not confirmed suicide. At the end there is an instance of magical realism which could be interpreted different ways and would make for some great discussion. /end spoilers
I appreciate the fact that Karen Hesse took the time to bring a novelization of race issues in the North to our attention. Students, teachers, and families who are not bothered by the issues listed above, or those who plan to listen to the audiobook or read the novel aloud, will likely enjoy this work. Although I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel, I would try Hesse’s work again.