Hesse, Karen. 2001. Witness. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0439271991
Witness is an account of a small Vermont town's experience with the Ku Klux Klan in 1924. The story is told in verse. Eleven disparate residents of the fictional town offer first person accounts of life after the Klan arrives. A small Jewish girl and her father, and a young African-American girl are the first of the Klan's targets, but the Klan's activities leave no one untouched.
Witness is a narrative of the KKK’s infiltration of a small Vermont town in 1924. It is written in free verse through the voices of eleven different residents. The verse is largely without capitalization or punctuation, using line breaks instead to separate thoughts. Through the largely first-person accounts, each the character of each of the residents is revealed.
Esther, a six-year-old Jewish girl, and Leonora, a twelve-year-old African American girl tell much of the story. The voice of Leonora, an obvious target of the Klan is compelling. The reader senses her fear as she hides in a closet but finds no escape from the specter of a cross-burning. The speech patterns of Esther may be difficult for some readers to comprehend. Her unusual speech may be mistaken for simple-mindedness; however, it is more likely representative of a recent immigrant’s dialect, and is symbolic of her innocence. The voices of Harvey and Viola Pettibone, however, are the most intriguing. The Pettibone’s are middle-aged shop owners. Theirs is the only verse that contains back-and-forth dialogue as they debate the Klan’s value, effect, influence, and activities in the intimate dialogue of husband and wife.
Although Horn Book dismissed the protagonists as stereotypes (Hepperman 2001), the use of stereotypes is necessary to illustrate the myriad of opinions as the Klan’s influence extends throughout the town. Streaming, free-form verse unfolds the innermost thoughts of the characters, revealing the influences of fear, peer pressure, guilt, conviction, and uncertainty on their behavior.
Witness begins with a Carl Sandburg quote, followed by a Cast of Characters list, and the five acts of the book. Until the characters (including the doctor, preacher, newspaper editor, rumrunner, and others) are established, the Cast of Characters is a welcome reference. Aged photographic renderings of the fictional characters help the reader to distinguish them further.
Vermont is not the usual setting for tales of the KKK and the ugliness of racism and bigotry. Witness tells an ugly chapter of history from an unusual perspective that will intrigue readers. The tale is both disturbing and hopeful. Readers will find it believable and memorable.
In the September 2001, School Library Journal, authors Persson, et al, wrote, "...includes some quiet yet irreducible moments that resonate long after the book is put down. The small details seem just right, and demonstrate that this is much more than a social tract. It's a thoughtful look at people and their capacity for love and hate."
Writing for Horn Book Magazine, Christine Hepperman, had a different view of Witness, writing in the Nov/Dec 2001 issue, "Karen Hesse's latest free-verse novel employs eleven different voices to record the Ku Klux Klan's effects on a Vermont town in 1924, with dubious success. The fictional cast, comprising two children and nine adults, is introduced with sepia-toned photographs to boost their verisimilitude and help sort out who's who. Yet many still feel more like types than complex individuals."
Readers who enjoy this book will also enjoy Hesse's Newbery Award winning title Out of the Dust.
The short verse entries and multiple voices, make Witness and excellent choice for reader's theater. Readers should be encouraged to delve into the characters and find the motivation for their behaviors.