Monday, August 18, 2008


Karen Hesse’s Witness is an important achievement in literature for adolescents. Not only is the book told through a variety of voices of the characters in this novel, but each "chapter" is a poem told from the point of view of one of those characters. Hesse dares not only to give readers words and thoughts of those that might draw obvious sympathy, a Jewish girl who has lost her mother and the Black girl who helps her (and others), but also the villains of the story and those characters in between.
Each poem/chapter demonstrates a masterful sense of voice. The diction and word choices are exactly what one would expect from the character meant to be speaking. As individual poems, these work just fine as well. I was, at first, a bit put off by the rather prosaic expressions of some of the characters (particularly the newspaper editor), but as the book went along, I realized that these people would speak exactly this way. The use of verse allows the reader not only to hear what the characters would say in dialogue, but also to "hear" their inner dialogues.
The story traces an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to gain influence in a small town. Here we see the price of such alliances, a different price paid by each of those who participate. We also see the price and the reward of standing firm against them. Readers also see not only the interactions of the characters, but how the relationships develop as the story unfolds. I’m sure most readers will find the friendship between Leanora Sutter and little Esther Hirsh to be touching. But I found myself also moved by Leanora’s relationship with Mr. Field. He is an elderly man in failing health and a little crotchety, but well represents that old does not mean forgetful of his shared humanity with the twelve year old Black girl who has given her time to care for him.
Perhaps many readers will not find Witness as emotionally powerful as other books for adolescents that cover the same period of history or the same general themes. However, I believe this novel should stand on the shelves with them. Actually, it should not stand on the shelf, but be read and studied enthusiastically. (A teacher’s edition is available.)

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