Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Witness, by Karen Hesse

Title:  Witness
Author:  Karen Hesse
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2003
Pages:  161
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Racism, Friendship, Social Justice
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
The story takes place in a small Vermont town in the year 1924, revealing the devastating impact of the Ku Klux Klan on this pastoral, insular community. At the heart of the tale are two motherless girls who come to the attention of the newly formed Klan: 12-year-old Leanora Sutter, who is black, and 6-year-old Esther Hirsch, who is Jewish. 
Hesse tells her story, which is based on real events, through the eyes of 11 different characters. Each point of view is expressed in poetic form, but with a stark clarity of difference that makes the voices unique and identifiable. There is a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose sermons reveal him as a zealot and whose actions brand him as a hypocrite. There is a middle-aged farm woman named Sara who takes Esther under her wing despite the warnings of her neighbors, trying to help the child understand why the Klan has marked her and her widowed father as targets for their hatred. Esther's only other friend is Leanora, who is about to learn some harsh lessons on tolerance and hatred herself at the hands of the Klan. And linking them all together is 18-year-old Merlin Van Tornhout, a young man struggling to fit in with the adult world and determine for himself the difference between right and wrong. The remaining characters who circle the periphery of this core group reflect the various mind-sets and biases that were common during this era of fear and persecution, even in a setting as bucolic as the Vermont countryside.

This book is a gem, an example of high-quality writing for children at its finest.  This book details a pre-civil rights era America, and examines race and racial inequity not with the deep South as its backdrop, but with the rural Vermont countryside.  One of the myths that northern Americans have told themselves for years is that things were only really bad for blacks and other minorities in the south, but as Hesse clearly demonstrates that was never true.  We may not have had Jim Crow laws on the books north of the Mason Dixon Line, but that doesn't mean that out communities didn't struggle with issues of race and discrimination.

The content is not always easy to read, and there are a few of what I call "grown up" words in there, but mature 4th and 5th readers with the guidance of a teacher or parent could have some really interesting discussions about what life was like for Leanora and Esther-though there will definitely need to be some front-loading of historical context, since the novel is long on feeling and short on exposition.  That said, older students could read the novel either as a a reader or an author-the text structure is unique, free verse is something that many of them won't have a lot of experience with, and there is a lot of room for students to interpret what they are reading and to discuss character traits and character change over the course of the book.  The minister eventually ends up targeted by the clan himself, poor Marvin struggles with cultural expectations and what he knows is right, and the girls have such an innocence about them at the beginning that is truly tested through the events of the story.  Hesse has once again given us a moving, heartfelt book about a tough to talk about issue.

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