Witness (Scholastic Gold)

Written by Karen Hesse
Review by Meg Wiviott

Set in 1924 while the Klu Klux Klan insinuates itself into several Vermont communities, Witness tells the story of one small town’s internal conflict. Told in verse by eleven different characters, Hesse gives voice to an assortment of opinions: those who favor  the Klan, those who oppose it, and the two who are in the gravest danger—Leanora, a twelve-year old African-American girl and six-year-old Esther, who is Jewish.

When first published in 2001, Witness received numerous starred reviews and awards. Hesse is the master of quiet yet haunting historical novels. Here she deals with difficult topics—antisemitism, racism, and white supremacy. Hatred fills the pages. But love and tolerance do as well. Written for readers ages twelve and up, it is probably better suited for older students considering the referencing of the Leopold and Loeb trial with which younger readers may not be familiar, and that other than Leonora and Esther, the characters are adults—shopkeepers, a Protestant minister, a newspaper editor, and town constable. Additionally, the large assembly of characters, while giving depth to the issue, can be difficult to keep track of (making the photographs of the characters at the front of the book necessary for reference).

Unfortunately, the horror of this story is soft-pedaled at its conclusion. The residents who favor the Klan come to oppose them. It feels abrupt, as if the characters had no idea of what the Klan truly represents, and the one virulent white supremacist (who is despicable for other reasons) commits suicide. It feels disingenuous today, as if all is forgiven and life goes back to the way it was. Hatred lurks in the most unlikely places and is not readily subdued once it has been allowed to roam free.