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Monday, November 26, 2012

Bamboozled by the Ku Klux Klan

Over the weekend, I read Karen Hesse's Witness (2001 Scholastic) 

I had earlier read and loved Out of the Dust (1999) and had really enjoyed the way hHsse used poetry and different points-of-view to weave together a really moving story of a girl growing up in the dust bowl years.  Witness came out two years after Out of the Dust and uses the same techniques that the eariler book did - but maybe not quite as well.

Witness is set in a little town in Vermont.  The Ku Klux Klan sets about opening a chapter in town and at first a lot of the town's citizens are pretty supportive of it -- since it has all the trappings of a civic organization like the Rotary Club.  And what is great about Hesse's approach is that we can read the inner thoughts of many different people, from Johnny Reeves, the preacher, and 18 year-old Merlin Ven Turnhout who both seem convinced that the Klan is a great opportunity for the town -- to Percelle Johnson, the town constable, who seems to be withholding judgment,--  to Leonora Sutter, a 12 year old African American and Reynard Alexander, the editor of the newspaper who suspect the Klan is not as civically-minded as they seem. 



The plot which weaves through all this is an interesting one.  As the Klan gains power in the town, subtle and not-so subtle events of discrimination begin to surface.  When Leanora's father is shot and two prominent leaders of the Klan go missing, it really takes off.  There are some great moments of ordinary citizens seeing what is right and standing up against the Klan.

But the book's strength -- its multi-perspectival approach to narration -- may also be its downfall.  Whereas Out of the Dust showed several different people's thoughts and points-of-view, it also had the through-line of a single main narrator.  Witness involves the points-of-view of eleven different people, all of who are connected to each other in a myriad of ways.  Frankly, I had a hard time keeping track of them all, even with the illustrated guide in the beginning of the book.  I think a middle school or high school student who likes to read and reread books would enjoy understanding a bit more of this book each time he or she reads it, but the majority of students may not have the patience for such a difficult cast of characters in spite of the rewarding twists, turns, and excellent ending to the book.


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