Vermont town struggles with questions of race, religion, and conscience in 'Witness'

Children's novel about prejudice is suitable for adults as well

Posted: Sunday, February 29, 2004

The 2001 children's novel "Witness" by Karen Hesse is carving out a place for itself beside the classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee.

Both are stories of prejudice. Both include young, impressionable, observant voices - Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and Leanora Sutter, 12, and Esther Hirsch, 6, in "Witness."

A resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, Hesse was inspired to write "Witness" in 1997, when she read a short article about the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont in the 1920s. She struggled to find the proper form for the book until she was reminded of "Spoon River Anthology" by Edgar Lee Masters, a poetic portrait of a town in various voices. She invented a cast of characters, ranging from Leanora and her father, who are African American, to Esther and her father, who are Jewish. Esther stands out because of her unusual way of expressing herself. The cast also includes a courageous newspaper editor who fights the Klan, a female rum runner, a clergyman, a compassionate spinster farmer, and others. Eleven of the characters have speaking roles; others, such as Ira Hirsch, Esther's father, various teachers and students, enter into the action but do not speak. Hesse sees the novel as "a mosaic of a community giving birth to its conscience."

The novel is presented in five acts. Each act is composed of free verse poems, soliloquies of various lengths by the characters. In the first poem, spoken by Leanora, the scene is set, demonstrating prejudice among the children involved in a school dance performance. Only Esther, recently transplanted from New York, doesn't mind her race, Leanora says.

Harvey and Viola Pettibone, a husband and wife in their 50s, often speak in the same poem, debating whether Harvey should join the Ku Klux Klan in order to promote his grocery business. "They're not low-down, like some folks day," Harvey says. "They're good men, 100 percent American men....They do good, Vi," Harvey adds, "They take care of their women, and liquor can't ever tear up a family with them around."

The time is 1924, and news from other parts of the United States is discussed by the characters: the murder of Bobby Franks in Chicago and the trial of his murderers; the right to vote for women.

Not all the discussions are of race and death, isolation, bigotry, deceased parents, shootings and plans to poison wells. Some deal with the birth of kittens, with catching fish or the excitement of visiting circuses, or with the appetizing smells of pancakes and fried eggs.

Witness is gripping, realistic and thought-provoking. Although published as literature for juveniles, it is suitable reading for adults as well. Teachers in upper grades could use it to stimulate discussions of prejudice. It lends itself to being read aloud by students, and even to performances on stage.

An interesting device that makes the fictitious characters more real is that photographs of them are supplied in the two pages just before the text. These portraits were borrowed with permission from several photo collections.

Witness won the Christopher Award, was judged an ALA Notable Children's Book, and was declared Best Book of the Year in 2001 by both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.

A multi-voice recording on two cassettes is available from Listening Library, a division of Random House.

Other books by Karen Hesse include "Just Juice," "A Light in the Storm," "The Music of Dolphins" and "Stowaway."


By Karen Hesse. Scholastic. 178 pages. $16.95.

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