Friday, October 12, 2007

Poetry: Witness

Hesse, Karen. (2001). WITNESS. NY: Scholastic Press, Inc. ISBN: 0439271991.

*Winner of the 2002 Christopher Awards*


During the year of 1924, eleven Vermont townspeople, consisting of two children and nine adults, tell the story of how their town and lives were affected by the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan.

Through free verse narratives in this historical novel, Hesse authentically captures eleven individuals’ voice and beliefs. In the cast there are:

* Leanora Sutter, a twelve year old black girl
* Merlin Van Tornhout, an eighteen year old who joins the Klan only to realize that he is not a killer
* Esther Hirsh, an innocent Jewish six year old
* Parcelle Johnson, the town constable
* Sarah Chickering, a farmer who allows Esther and her father to live in her house
* Johnny Reeves, a corrupt and hypocritical clergyman,
* Iris Weaver, the restaurant owner and rumrunner by the name of
* Fitzgerald Flitt, a doctor
* Harvey and Viola Pettibone, who own a shop and who disagree with their opinions on the Klan
* Reynard Alexander, a newspaper editor who is against the Klan

The book is organized into five acts, the traditional Dramatic Structure found in classic pieces of literature like the Greek dramas. Each character speaks at least once in each act. Each narrative has the name of the character for reference to the reader. All of the poems are free verse narrative. Because of the free verse style, Hesse has the ability to write simple yet powerful stories. None of the narratives have capitalized words, not even proper nouns. This allows the readers to only focus (and not be distracted by large letters) on the text and what is being told. It also represents the simple style of speech of all the characters.

Even though it may be simple, each character has a specific way of talking. If the name was not known, the readers could still figure out who is talking by their tone of “voice,” their speech pattern, and their use of words. Esther is the easiest to recognize because of her childlike thoughts and way of describing, such as when she and Sarah Chickering were oiling keys and locks of the door, Esther describes how Sarah works in the lubricant, “openshutopenshut” (Hesse, p. 156). Reynard Alexander, a man of writing knowledge because of his profession, speaks clear and proper in comparison to the other adult characters. The clergyman, Johnny Reeves, says “neighbor” constantly has he gives his sermons. With these touches, Hesse truly makes, without any personal descriptions (other than what the pictures allow), the characters full and round and not flat, and full of emotions.

Another element that makes Witness a fantastic book is the clear progression and evolvement, as traditionally seen in a five-act play, of the characters, in the midst of the Ku Klux Klan’s efforts to recruit member and remove the Leanora and Esther and their fathers from the town. Some characters were pro-Klan; however they changed their thoughts by the end of the book. Merlin Van Tornhout is a prime example of this. After he joined the Klan he could not bring himself to poison the Sutter’s well because he “remembered [Leanora]/ racing that train/ and she was still a colored girl/ but she wasn’t a/ colored girl,” (Hesse, p. 150). How could he kill a black girl who did a heroic and humanly act of had saving little Esther from being crushed by a train at the railway tracks? Other characters’ changes were subtler such as Sarah Chickering’s growing love for Esther, her constant companions. If it was not for Esther she “might have joined the ladies’ klan” (Hesse, p. 59). Befriending the elderly Civil War veteran Mr. Field, Leanora learns that not all white people were the same. Reynard Alexander started out has being a neutral party when it came to the klan business; however, by Act Four he was completely against the klan and states boldly that,

persecution is not american
it is not american to give the power of life and death
to a secret organization
it is not american to have out citizens judged by
an invisible jury.
it is not american to have bands of night riders
apply the punishment of medieval europe to
freeborn men

the ku klux klan must go (Hesse, p. 125).

By the end, the evolvement of the all the characters had taken place and life begins to calm as the Klan leaves because of the cool treatment of the Vermont government.

What makes this book a true historical novel is not just the time period but also the mention of famous historical figures well known during that year. Iris Weaver, who is quite the independent woman, mentions that, “down in texas/ mrs. mariam ferguson,/ … defeated the klan candidate/ … if she wins,/ she’ll be the first woman/ governor in/ this whole damn country./ imagine” (Hesse, p. 28), which is true, Mrs. Ferguson did become governor. There was a great deal of talk about the famous murder trial of the Leopold and Loeb, who killed Bobby Franks, who was rich, white and Jewish, not for hate but for the thrill and because they could. Even Leanora wrote to Helen Keller asking about “how maybe we’d be better off if no one could see./ then nobody would mind about/ a person’s skin color” and Ms. Keller replied with an autographed copy of her The World I Live In (Hesse, p.152). With these references to historical figures and events, the story is richer and gives background information to the time that it was set in, which educates the readers.

With all these wonderfully detailed elements, Hesse has created an amazing story of how a town and its people of all race and backgrounds are affected when a corrupt organization like the Ku Klux Klan enters their lives, and power of standing up to what they believe.

In this stunning piece of little-known American history, Hesse (Stowaway, 2000, etc.) paints small-town Vermont on the brink of self-destruction circa 1924. The narrative poetry format has fitting roots in "The Spoon River Anthology." Eleven characters speak revealingly for themselves to describe a year in which the Ku Klux Klan arrives, seduces many solid citizens, moves from intimidation to threat to violence, and is finally rejected by the tolerant, no-nonsense townsfolk. Central to the story are two children, one an African-American named Leanora, and the other, a Jewish fresh-air child from New York, named Esther. As targets of prejudice, the lives of both are affected by the actions of the KKK: Leanora is the victim of racist remarks and threats, and Esther sees her father shot while she's sitting on his lap. The story is all the more haunting for its exquisite balance of complex and intersecting points of view on gender, ethnicity, politics, religion, and money. The setting is well developed through subtly embedded period details of everyday Vermont life (a broom sale creates a stampede) and incidents of national historical significance (the Leopold and Loeb trial). The voices of each character have a distinct resonance, but the voice of Esther, the moral center of the book, is memorable. It has a unique beauty and style created by Esther's innocent and hopeful way of expression, but revealing of her immigrant roots in New York. This is carefully crafted, with Leanora, who evolves and grows in wisdom and understanding, being given the first and last word. What Copeland created with music, and Hopper created with paint, Hesse deftly and unerringly creates with words: the iconography of Americana, carefully researched, beautifully written, and profoundly honest. (Fiction. 10-14) (August 1, 2001)

The author of Out of the Dust again turns language into music in her second quietly moving novel written entirely in verse. Here, 11 narrative voices chronicle actual events occurring in a sleepy Vermont town after the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924. Those victimized by the Klan include the families of Leanora Sutter, a 12-year-old African-American girl, and Esther Hirsh, the six-year-old daughter of a Jewish shoe salesman. Rounding out the portrait of the town are community leaders (an enlightened physician, a newspaper editor who moves from neutral to anti-Klan) as well as less prominent folk shopkeepers, a Protestant minister who are swayed into joining the white supremacist group. Their chorus of hatred rings loudly at first, but is tempered by their dawning realization of the severity of the Klan's punishment to their targets as well as the more rational, compassionate strains of the Klan's opponents. Hesse offers glimpses of the world at large through references to Prohibition, the Leopold and Loeb case and a letter Leanora pens to Helen Keller. The author distinguishes the characters (whose pictures appear in the front of the book) not only by their varying opinions but also by their tone of speech. The simpler, candid language of the two youngest cast members, Leanora and Esther, effectively crystallizes their gradual loss of innocence. Easily read in one sitting, this lyrical novel powerfully records waves of change and offers insightful glimpses into the hearts of victims, their friends and their enemies. Ages 9-12. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. (August 20, 2001)

*Introduce the Dramatic Structure to the students and have them analyze the text with the Freytag Pyramid method (Exposition, Rising Action Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement.)
*Have students pick a character and read the story as if it was a play.
*Read more books by Karen Hesse like Out of the Dust and Aleutian Sparrow.
*Read books about similar issues such as the Holocaust like Number of Stars by Lois Lowry.


  1. That's cool! This is what I needed! It helps me out with my homework which I was quite confused on for this book :)

  2. I am glad that my review was able to help you understand the book. This is a great book to use for school because of the historic aspects that it includes. Hesse's Out of the Dust is also a great book to use because of its connections with the Depression.

    Please, if you use any of my review for your school work I ask that you provide the correct citations so you avoid any plagiarism troubles. If you need help with citations here's the basic information that you can apply to any format:

    Author: Dorothy T.

    Post Title: Poetry: Witness

    Website/Blog: The Wielded Pen - Children's Corner

    Date of post: October 12, 2007


  3. I was reading over what was written about Witness and I was wondering if you meant Sara Chickering not Pickering and Bobby Franks not Brian Franks?

  4. Yes, I had meant to use the correct names in my review. In the midst of my fevered writing I let my fingers type away, especially when I was so close to the end! Thank you for pointing out my two little typos. I have corrected them for future readers. :-)


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