Witness – Karen Hesse
The year is 1924, and a small town in Vermont is falling under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. Two girls, Leanora Sutter and Esther Hirch, one black and the other Jewish, are among those who are no longer welcome. As the potential for violence increases, heroes and villains are revealed, and everyone in town is affected. With breathtaking verse, Karen Hesse tells her story in the voices of several characters. Through this chorus of voices, the true spirit of the town emerges.
Review: This little book packs a huge punch.
In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan comes to a small Vermont town to “protect families.” As the Klan becomes more violent and influential, their presence impacts every person in the town. This novel-in-verse is told from multiple points-of-view. The characters are different ages, from different backgrounds, and have different opinions of the Klan. Will the characters give in to the Klan’s influence, or will they run the Klan out of town?
“To those who swear our young are on the road to perdition take comfort in this—every generation has felt somewhat the same for two or three thousand years and still the world goes on.” – Witness
This book is written as free verse poetry. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not a poetry expert, but I found the poems well-written and easy to follow. Even the “artsy” poems aren’t confusing. Don’t let the format of the book deter you. It’s just as readable as a prose novel. And, it’s short (160 pages). I got through it in a few hours. If you’re curious about novels-in-verse, this might be a good place to start because it doesn’t require a big time commitment.
Witness has a huge variety of perspectives. It’s a children’s book, but you get to hear from adult characters, which is unusual. Some of the adults support the KKK; others despise it. A few are indifferent. The child characters are caught somewhere in between. My favorite characters are Leanora and Esther. Leanora is a twelve-year-old African American girl who fully understands the threat the Klan poses. Esther is a six-year-old Jewish girl who seems to have some kind of mental problem. She’s preoccupied with her mother’s death and doesn’t fully understand the Klan, but they still have an impact on her life. Both of these characters have strong voices. I loved them instantly.
I also really like Harvey and Viola Pettibone, an older couple whose poems are often written as dialogues. Harvey is curious about the Klan, but Viola is a realist and shoots down his ideas pretty quickly. Even though society tells Viola she’s supposed to be a supportive wife, she’s skeptical of all this Klan nonsense. It’s brilliant.
The characters are where this book shines, but I think there are too many of them. The book has 11 different narrators. There are photos of each narrator at the beginning of the novel, but my memory isn’t that good. When I first started reading, I had to flip back to the photos to remind myself who is who. It was distracting because the poems are short. Each page is narrated by a different character. Once I learned all the names, this was fine, but there was a lot of page flipping going on at the start.
Even though this isn’t a plot-driven book, I wish the mystery had been introduced earlier. Near the end of the story, a crime is committed by a Klan member, but nobody knows which one. The middle of the book feels a bit saggy and directionless to me. Introducing the mystery earlier could have helped that. The novel is so short that the sagginess didn’t really bother me, though.
The best part of Witness is that it imagines people complexly. It resists the oversimplified “good vs evil” plot. It shows that an evil organization like the Klan can seem tempting to regular people. Witness also shows that people can change their minds and learn from their mistakes. In the end, the story is about the choices that people make. If we’re willing to change our ideas and stop ignoring problems, we can make a difference in the world.
Witness gets some bonus points from me for historical accuracy. It references real events. The author also explains that the KKK doesn’t just target dark-skinned people. They hate Jews, Catholics, and anybody who is sympathetic to these groups. History books often focus on African Americans and ignore the other groups who are persecuted. Witness corrects a few misconceptions.
This is a solid novel-in-verse. I’m going to look up more of Karen Hesse’s work.