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Witness

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Overview

Leanora Sutter. Esther Hirsh. Merlin Van Tornhout. Johnny Reeves . . .

These characters are among the unforgettable cast inhabiting a small Vermont town in 1924. A town that turns against its own when the Ku Klux Klan moves in. No one is safe, especially the two youngest, twelve-year-old Leanora, an African-American girl, and six-year-old Esther, who is Jewish.
In this story of a community on the brink of disaster, told through the haunting and...

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Overview

Leanora Sutter. Esther Hirsh. Merlin Van Tornhout. Johnny Reeves . . .

These characters are among the unforgettable cast inhabiting a small Vermont town in 1924. A town that turns against its own when the Ku Klux Klan moves in. No one is safe, especially the two youngest, twelve-year-old Leanora, an African-American girl, and six-year-old Esther, who is Jewish.
In this story of a community on the brink of disaster, told through the haunting and impassioned voices of its inhabitants, Newbery Award winner Karen Hesse takes readers into the hearts and minds of those who bear witness.

A series of poems express the views of various people in a small Vermont town, including a young black girl and a young Jewish girl, during the early 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan is trying to infiltrate the town.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
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)

From the Publisher

“This lyrical novel powerfully records waves of change and offers insightful glimpses into the hearts of victims, their friends and their enemies.” – Publishers Weekly

“Remarkable and powerful . . . a thoughtful look at people and their capacity for love and hate..” – School Library Journal

"Add this to the Holocaust curriculum, not because every racial incident means genocide, but because the book will spark discussion about how such a thing can happen even now." Booklist, starred review
"What Copeland created with music, and Hopper created with paint, Hesse deftly and unerringly creates with words." -- Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hesse's (Out of the Dust) powerful, history-inspired novel about the Ku Klux Klan's encroachment on a small town in 1924 Vermont becomes a riveting audiobook as performed by a stellar cast. The storyAtold in poetry, in the voices of 11 charactersAis surprisingly easy to follow; listeners are introduced to each distinctive character voice at the outset and are soon caught up in the strong narrative rhythm, able to discern who's who. Fine showings from Heather Alicia Simms (When Kambia Elaine Came Down from Neptune) as Leonora Sutter, a 12-year-old African-American girl, and Jenna Lamia in the role of six-year-old Esther Hirsh, a Jewish immigrant child, anchor the proceedings and give this production its heart. Colorful supporting characters, some with evocative New England accents, subtly and effectively draw listeners into Hesse's thought-provoking themes. At program's end, listeners are treated to bonus material: a meaty interview with Hesse conducted by author and children's book historian Leonard S. Marcus. Hesse reveals, among other things, her inspiration for the book and her research methods. Ages 12-up. Simultaneous release with the Scholastic hardcover, reviewed in Children's Forecasts, Aug. 20. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
PW wrote in our Best Books citation, "Hesse weaves together 11 distinct narrative voices to create a moving account of the Ku Klux Klan's encroachment on a small Vermont town in 1924. Told completely in verse, her quietly powerful novel addresses the inevitable loss of innocence that accompanies the fight for social justice." Ages 9-12. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Life in a small Vermont town changed in 1924—the year the Ku Klux Klan came to town. Based on historical documentation, Hesse, using her quiet poetic form, chronicles the events through the voices of residents of the town. Looking at the pictures and ages of the residents, the reader wonders about the effect the book will have, but that wonder is soon replaced by anticipation of reading each entry. The power of the voices, especially those of Reynard Alexander, the newspaper editor, and Esther Hirsh, the six-year-old Jewish girl, is strong and pulls the reader into the very life of the town. When the Klan leaves, both the reader and the town sigh deeply, knowing that they are forever changed. The book is a fast read, but is one that will not release the reader's mind and heart.
KLIATT
To quote KLIATT's September 2001 review of the hardcover edition: Hesse has stretched our imaginations before (especially in Out of the Dust and The Music of Dolphins) and here she has done it again. This "novel" is told in a series of poems, in five acts, in the voices of 12 different characters. This is baffling at the beginning. This format suggests that the story could best be studied in class, read dramatically by 12 different students. The poems work as pieces of tile, each one fitting together to form a startling mosaic, a whole story of what happened in one town in Vermont in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was organizing there (based on history). We hear the voices of a hate-filled preacher, a rational doctor, a teenage boy drawn to the Klan, a thoughtful newspaper editor, a young African American girl, a Jewish child, and others. As is true in Out of the Dust, the poetry drives a strong narrative, telling of murder attempts, a dramatic rescue, a teenager on the run, a suicide. At the heart, of course, is the cancer of prejudice and hatred, the lure of the Klan and its evil, and the response of decent people who want to learn tolerance, who understand the nature of the American dream to be inclusive. Hesse has told this story in an unusual manner, challenging with the poetry that presents 12 distinctive voices, and the effect of the narrative is overwhelmingly moving. KLIATT Codes: JSA*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Scholastic, 162p. illus.,
— Claire Rosser
VOYA
Using several disparate voices to people her story, Hesse tells of the inroads made by the Ku Klux Klan into Vermont in the 1920s. Each character has a unique perspective on the issues, from six-year-old Esther Hirsh, a Jewish child from New York City who misses her dead mother and cannot understand why someone would shoot her father, to sixty-year-old Fitzgerald Flitt, the town doctor who recognizes the danger of all the hatred riding in on the coattails of the Klan, to eighteen-year-old Merlin Van Tornhout, whose bullying nature finds a home with these masked night riders. Hesse's witnesses are testifying in the court of public opinion about an event that nearly destroyed their lives. As the months go by and the ugliness escalates, the testimonies offer subtle changes in the thinking of the characters, first in the Klan's determination to root out all that thegroup perceives to be bad for the community and then in the resolve of some members as they begin to see the real harm being done. Using poetic form with no capitalization allows Hesse to crystallize the voices of her eleven characters. Each speaks from his or her personal experiences of fears and prejudices. This lyric work is another fine achievement from one of young adult literature's best authors. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P M J (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2001, Scholastic, 176p, $16.95. Ages 11 to 15. Reviewer: Leslie Carter
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up-This full cast production greatly enhances and dramatizes Karen Hesse's quietly moving, powerful novel (Scholastic, 2001) about a small town in Vermont after the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan. Set in 1924, the cast of 11 characters tells a story of racism and bigotry based on actual events. As each character speaks, the tale builds like a courtroom drama in which it becomes apparent that the families of 12-year-old Leanora Sutter, an African-American girl, and 6-year-old Esther Hirsh, daughter of a Jewish shoe salesman, are among the victims of Klan activities. Each voice is distinguished by differing opinions and simple language, such as the speech of Leanora and young Esther. Community leaders (a doctor and newspaper editor), adult townspeople who oppose the Klan, and Klan supporters themselves complete the portrait of the town. The presentation concludes with a fascinating interview between historian and critic Leonard Marcus and Karen Hesse in which she discusses her work and how she came to write her latest novel in verse. Pair this powerful novel with Caroline Cooney's Burning Up (Delacorte, 1999) or Virginia Euwer Wolff's Bat 6 (Scholastic, 1998), and watch the sparks fly. What will surely follow is a lively discussion on small town life, hate groups, and prejudice.-Celeste Steward, Contra Costa County Library, Clayton, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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: theiconography of Americana, carefully researched, beautifully written, and profoundly honest. (Fiction. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780439272001
  • Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/2/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 101,692
  • Age range: 9 - 12 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.54 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Meet the Author


Karen Hesse is the award-winning and critically acclaimed author of many books for children. Her titles include WITNESS, THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE, and the Newbery Medal winner OUT OF THE DUST, among many others. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two teenaged daughters.
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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
In 1997, while returning from a speaking engagement, I spent the last moments of my flight skimming the airline's complimentary magazine. There I came across a filler about the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont in the 1920s. I read the item, shaking my head in disbelief. "The Klan in Vermont?" I thought. "Couldn't be." Then I did something totally out of character. I removed the article from the magazine and tucked it into my bag.

Back home I wasted no time in attempting to disprove the article, but to my surprise it was correct. The Klan had indeed gained a toehold in Vermont in the 1920s. Maudean Neill had documented it. I bought and read her book, corresponded with her about her research, then tried to imagine how I might take this episode in history and craft a compelling story for young readers. Hitting one dead end after another, I finally tucked the idea into the back corner of my brain and moved on.

Fast forward three years. Jean Feiwel, in search of a new project we might work on together, sent an email with the subject line, "Book Idea?" The message which followed read simply, "Remember Spoon River Anthology?" Suddenly the back corner of my brain flooded with light. I had performed Spoon River in high school. That was it! The path to the Klan project had been there all along, blazed by Edgar Lee Masters.

Over the following months I ferreted out books discussing the Klan in the '20s. I read nonfiction, fiction, plays, short stories, and poetry from and about the period. I drove around Vermont, haunting libraries, poring over microfilm. Altogether I composed over 550 poems in the voices of 13 distinct narrators. Arriving at the end of that "first draft," I culled the unwieldy stack, cutting the book in half. Another 100-plus pages, and two of the original narrators disappeared as revisions progressed.

My gut knotted as I wrote from the point of view of characters whose lives were rooted in bigotry and intolerance. But there were also narrators who made my heart soar. Disabling my censor, allowing each character to speak his or her mind, I have, in Witness, attempted to piece together a mosaic of community giving birth to its conscience. (Karen Hesse)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 29 )
Rating Distribution

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(17)

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(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 29 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    This book is excellent.

    Karen Hesse uses the monologue style that she used for Out of the Dust. Witness is shocking but very interesting. I think that it might be even better than Out of the Dust. It should have won a Newbery Award. Please read it. You will not be disappointed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2007

    Great

    Love it the book was great

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2007

    Heart-rending

    Karen Heese wrote the novel Witness as journal entries, and these astonishing and heart-rending free verse poems capture the suspense, hurt, and commotion of the early 1900's. Witness has many sections from different people's point-of-view. Some of the characters are Leanora Sutter, the young black innocent girl, Johny Reeves, clergyman, Percelle Johnson, town constable, Esther Hirsh, lonely little white girl that only has Leanora as a friend and Sara Chickering and her dad to look after her. Each character has a strong way of letting the readers know what is going on and voice their point-of-view about all the situations. As you read more about the characters, you are able to get a clear picture of what is going on in this town of disturbance. This book is very interesting, so go ckeck it out!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2013

    Pese read this preview

    So in this book there is rape and racism. Fear and friendship. This is the best freeverse I have read.

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  • Posted March 3, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    GREAT MYSTERY BOOK BASED ON WORLD WAR II!

    BASICALLY WRITTEN THE SAME WAY AS OUT OF THE DUST!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2008

    a reviewer

    this was a great book i enjoyed it and im 12 years old we had to do this for a project in school and it was great fun

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2007

    Great book for young teens!

    Witness was a great book! It is not to long for kids because it does not fill a full page and it is only 161 pages. But, you will learn alot from this book about the early 1900's. It is about a black family moving to Vermont and they have to deal with the KKK coming up. So, if you are interested in the early 1900's and do not like to read a mouthful like Harry Potter, this is the book for you!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2006

    A Witness to WITNESS

    the book is ok. it's not great but,it's not bad. the ending makes no sense. it's just about the kkk coming into a small vermont town. the only thing that happens is the pastor was part of the kkk, they kicked him out and then he committed suicide because of it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2006

    a reviewer

    Witness is a great book for either scool project or just for a good infromative book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    Do you want to no more about the Civil Rights Movement? If so this book is for you!

    Do you want to know more about the Ku Klux Klan? Read the book, Witness, a novel told in verses, by Karen Hesse. The setting of this book is the year 1924, in Vermont. This novel is serious, and talks about people in the north getting attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. The two main characters of this book are Leanora Sutter, and Esther Hirsh. If you like this book you will like another book by Karen Hesse called, Out of the Dust. These two books are alike because they are told in many verses, voices, and poems. The weak points in this book that I didn¿t like were when each page was a different person than the page before. The strong points in the book that I liked were when they talked about the KKK. I wouldn¿t recommend this book to anyone because it goes from one person to another, then it gets hard to follow along, and then you get bored with the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    Read this book

    Do you like poems? If you do Witness was made for you! Witness is a historical novel told in many voices by Karen Hesse. This is a book about people who witnessed the Ku Klux Klan. There are many people in this book, but the most effected were Leonora and Esther. This book is also very serious. This book is a lot like the other book Karen wrote called Out of the Dust. They are both written in poems. They also have many voices and good and bad points. The bad points in Witness were the poems and no capitalization. The strong points are when the people see the KKK, because it makes me want to read more to see what happens. Someone who wants to learn about the KKK might want to read this. I wouldn¿t tell my friends to read this because it is very confusing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    Witness is an Amazing Book

    Did you ever wonder about victims of the Klu Klux Klan? This novel that is told in verse is by the wonderful author Karen Hesse. I would think that 13 year old kids that are interested in the civil rights movement would be the best audience for this book. The book Witness is like the story Numbering the Stars. I think this because it talks about people that are afraid of being themselves because if they are they will get hurt or killed. Two main characters are Sara Chickering and Merlin Van Tornhout. Sara is a 42 year old farmer and Merkin is 18 years old.The setting of this book takes place in Vermont in the year 1924. I think that this is a strong story about people up in the north worried about getting hurt by the K.K.K. and whether or not they should become part of it. The weak points of this story are that there is pore sentence structure and that it is in a poem form. I think one of the strong points of this story was when Johnny Reeves got the K.K.K. branding on his back. I would not recommend this story to my friends because it is very powerful and too hard for children my age to understand every thing that is going on.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    Super Kool Review by Mr.Pibb

    Do you like a good novel with mystery and adventure? Then Witness is the book for you. This book by Karen Hesse is interesting because each page is written in verse, sort of like poems. This book takes place in 1924. It is about a small town in Vermont that is being invaded by the Ku Klux Klan. It¿s up to Leanora Sutter, a black girl who is fighting for her rights, Esther Hirsh, a Jewish girl who is friends with Leanora, and a few of their friends to chase them out. The basic theme of this story is that you should never give up, even if you are faced with something much bigger than you. I don¿t think I would recommend this book to anyone in fifth grade or lower, because it might be hard for them to understand. After all, the entire book is written in poems. You actually have to read it a few times to get the meaning of the story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2005

    my opinion

    I am sorry, but i didn't like the book. maybe it was because we had to 'analiyze' what the poems meant in school since it was a team novel. it didn't interest me. sry 2 all those who liked it, but not everyone likes this book. that is my opinion

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2004

    A small town's inhabitants combat racism

    This excellent book in free verse details the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in a small Vermont town in the 1930s. When a Klan incident occurs about 12 townspeople give their testimony about the event and the ugly rise leading up to it. There is plenty for discussion in this book. It is excellent for teens as well as adults. You would figure that adults would have already learned the lesson about tolerance inherent in this book, but just change the word 'racism' to 'homophobia' and you will realize that many adults still fear those they consider to be different. We need to develop tolerance for all people, not just those we perceive to be like us. I bought this book for our church library. It is terrific. It is deceptively simple but has much food for thought. Buy this as a gift for a middle schooler.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2004

    Witness to an amazing book

    This is an inventive concept, to create photos of characters so you can better identify them and then provide prose/poem perspectives from each one in a sort of homage to Rashomon. Reminds me of Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Spoon River Anthology.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2004

    The Best Book Ever

    I loved Witness. Even though I love poems. This book was over the top good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2004

    READ THIS REVIEW!!!

    this book was so awesome, i loved it so much! it is really sad but really good. At first i didn't understand the title but then i totally understood.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2003

    good

    The was good gecause it was about the how people lived in the 60's and how hard life was for black people.It talked about the ku klux klan and how so many whites wanted to join.the klan thoght of everything you could thing of but when they found out that they were wrong they would burn a cross. The book also talked about how mean people could be. There was one person who killed some body for no reason. I think that this book really gave a good prespective of what life was really like for blacks and every one else who lived back then.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2003

    excellent reading!

    I loved this book; read it because it looked interesting, and read it again, and again -- ended up using it as the basis of an assignment, and found lots of ideas for activities for using this story with kids. A great story, a great resource, and a wonderfully unique style -- as well as an interesting starting point for researching the KKK and other similar groups. I recommend it highly.

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