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by Karen Hesse

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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

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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.

Editorial Reviews

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

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)

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.
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.
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
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

Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

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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