Witness: A Novel
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. Witness is a story of poverty and prejudice but, ultimately, of hope and redemption.
It is 1924, and a small Vermont town finds itself under siege—by the Ku Klux Klan. Using free verse, Newbery Medal-winning author Karen Hesse (Out of the Dust) allows 11 unique and memorable voices to relate the story of the Klan’s steady infiltration into the conscience of a small, Prohibition-era community. The Klan’s “all-American” philosophy is at first embraced by several of the town’s influential men, including Constable Parcelle Johnson and retailer Harvey Pettibone. But Harvey’s sensible wife, Viola, and independent restaurant owner Iris Weaver suspect from the beginning that the Klan’s arrival heralds trouble. As the only African Americans in town, 12-year old Leonora Sutter and her father try to escape Klan scrutiny, while 6-year-old, city-born Esther Hirsch remains blissfully unaware of the Klan’s prejudice against Jews as she enjoys the Vermont countryside. And Sara Chickering, the lady farmer who has opened her home to Esther and her father, is torn between her own hidden biases and her growing love for Esther.
All, however, are galvanized towards action when a shadowy figure shoots at Esther and her father right through Sara’s front door. Who would commit such an evil act? And is it too late to remove the poison that has insidiously leaked into their once tight-knit community? Part mystery, part social commentary, Hesse’s historically accurate chronicle is a riveting catalyst for discussion that thoughtfully explores race and identity from every possible point of view. The free verse format and distinct characterizations also make Witness a perfect choice for library or classroom reader’s theater productions. (Ages 12 and older) —Jennifer Hubert
Barnes and Noble
Karen Hesse’s Newbery Award-winning skills are put to great use in Witness, a poetic tale about friendship, fanaticism, and the deadly undercurrents of racial prejudice. The story takes place in a small Vermont town in the year 1924, revealing the devastating impact of the Ku Klux Klan on this pastoral, insular community. At the heart of the tale are two motherless girls who come to the attention of the newly formed Klan: 12-year-old Leanora Sutter, who is black, and 6-year-old Esther Hirsch, who is Jewish.
Hesse tells her story, which is based on real events, through the eyes of 11 different characters. Each point of view is expressed in poetic form, but with a stark clarity of difference that makes the voices unique and identifiable. There is a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose sermons reveal him as a zealot and whose actions brand him as a hypocrite. There is a middle-aged farm woman named Sara who takes Esther under her wing despite the warnings of her neighbors, trying to help the child understand why the Klan has marked her and her widowed father as targets for their hatred. Esther’s only other friend is Leanora, who is about to learn some harsh lessons on tolerance and hatred herself at the hands of the Klan. And linking them all together is 18-year-old Merlin Van Tornhout, a young man struggling to fit in with the adult world and determine for himself the difference between right and wrong. The remaining characters who circle the periphery of this core group reflect the various mind-sets and biases that were common during this era of fear and persecution, even in a setting as bucolic as the Vermont countryside.
Hesse weaves real historic events into her tale, such as the murder trial of the infamous kidnappers Leopold and Loeb, giving the work a definite period flavor. Using prose that is both sparse and powerful, she builds the tension with a slow crescendo of inevitability that ends in violence, but also offers up an unforgettable lesson on the true power of friendship and acceptance. (Beth Amos)