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.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Another Excellent Nerd Book

Being a nerd myself, I'll admit that I like a good nerd book.  You know the kind -- some kid who gets picked on for loving to learn and for being different in some way ends up finding out a way to come out on top. The Harry Potter books fit in this category.  Same with a lot of Daniel Pinkwater, John Green, Ellen Klages, Shannon Hale, and M.T. Anderson's books.
     Now I can add Meg Wolitzer's new book (2011) The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman to the list above.  Duncan Dorfman has a lot of strikes against him from the start.  He is the new kid in his high school.  He lives in an apartment with his single mother who works at the local Thriftee Mike's Warehouse -- where she purchases all his clothes -- so he will always look dorky.  During the first week of school, someone sticks some greasy lunchmeat to his back as he walks through the cafeteria line.  The meat sticks there for a while, leading his fellow students to nickname him "Lunchmeat" -- which also sticks.  He has one friend, who talks incessantly about videogames.  In short, Duncan Dorfman is a hopeless nerd.

     Then two things happen to Duncan.  First, he discovers that his left hand somehow has the ability to read print in total darkness.  A power which his mother does not seem surprised to learn he has -- and she wants him not to tell anyone he has it.  Second, when Duncan is showing his only friend Andrew what he can do, an athletic bullly-turned-scrabble-addict named Carl, who is sitting at the next table overhears, sees the possibiliites of such a power in a game that involves drawing letters blindly from a bag, and before he knows what is happening, Duncan finds himself bullied into being Carl's partner for the regional scrabble tournement.
     The journey that follows involles Duncan wrestling with his conscience, meeting other nerds, and discovering some amazing things about himself he didn't know.  In the end, he seems to accept and value his nerdiness (one of my most important criteria in a good nerd book).  You should read it.