Book Review: The Witness by Karen Hesse

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

The Witness breaks grammar rules known to aspiring authors and poets. It doesn’t bend; it breaks metal.

“leanora sutter: any person to whom an evening of hearty laughter is poison had better keep away from the community club minstrel show Friday evening at the town hall. All others will be admitted for a night of fun brought to you by 22 genuine black faced ‘coons.’

felt like skidding on ice as I read,

felt like twisting steel.

why can’t folks just leave me alone?” (p. 7)

Published in 2001, the YA book goes against political correctness in how it points out the discrimination during the Jim Crowe era of the 1920s. Why read the book in which every sentence begins with lowercase letters; composed in a cross blend of poetry and drama; and deals with a very harsh issue?

A mentor once told me, “Once you know the rules, you can bend them.” Karen Hesse goes against traditional rules of writing, because the symbolism of twisted chaos burns within the grammar itself. You want, as the reader, to correct it just like you want to save Leanora Sutter and Esther Hirsh.

Both Leanora, who is black, and Esther, a Jewish girl, live without their mothers in Vermont. Neither is fully accepted by the community. A “Christian” group comes to town in order to recruit white men. The Ku Klux Klan causes trouble. As with many towns in the 1920s, the Vermont town tolerated it. Two girls’ lives were put at risk.

Turmoil builds in this small book where several characters speak in poetic lines. My favorite character is Esther. She loves to play outside, and relates more to animals than people.

i did watch with daddy at the railroad tracks this morning

as the circus had their summer comings. daddy did keep a tight

hold on my hand and he did tell me again the ways of trains

while the circus people did roll their big wagons

off the flat cars.

they did have elephants pushing the wagons

and horses pulling.

Esther has a sweet innocence whereas Leanora demonstrates more common sense. She knows when danger comes like the scene where she rescues Esther pushing her off the train tracks when the engine charges at her. When Esther’s father is shot, something inside her changes. Only she knows the person with the gun, and the town waits to see if her father will live or die; if Leanora and she will lose their childhoods too soon.

I chose the book to see how another author—one I read as a child—covered the political turmoil in the 1920s. While mine is longer and written for slightly older teens, I gained a lot from the book as a reader and a writer. Problems within the plot still challenge different cultures today.

I promise, I begin my sentences with capital letters. It is worth a read.


Conversations with the Greats

Pat Conroy, author of several novels, including The Great Santini. The book is written about the tumultuous relationship with his father, an US Marine.

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

“[Culture at the Citadel] showed me something about mankind I needed to know as a writer.” – Pat Conroy

Good year so far. Not in terms of making money or publications, but the fact I have been lucky to meet writers, listen to talented authors, and learn. Last weekend, I attended the South Carolina Book Fair. I attended Saturday when authors Pat Conroy and Dr. Walter Edgar spoke.

I am rarely star-struck by people. While some of my students go wild over Bieber Fever, I turn into the 19-year-old tripping over bricks whenever I have the chance to speak with a author, man who does everything, and my former professor, Dr. Walter Edgar.


The man who is a walking dictionary of South Carolina history taught me the most important facts of my writing career.

It is not enough to write the facts on my exams. I need to describe and dig into the history.  Edgar speaks with a passion about history and his writing.

It was in history, not English class, where I learned to write. Dr. Edgar influenced my early research work for Sons of the Edisto.

Conversation with Dr. Edgar


Dr. Edgar is a man with things to do and places to go. He is not afraid to cut fans off.

A man in front of me wanted to speak with him after the interview between Pat Conroy and him.

“I’m sorry. I have to go,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders. All I wished to say was, “Thank you for instruction, your encouragement, and my recommendation years ago to the University of Kent at Canterbury.”

I returned to my mother and grandmother. As Dr. Edgar walked by, my mother waved her hands in the air and called his name.

Oh Lord, hide me in a cave.

“My daughter is a writer, and she learned so much from your classes,” she said like a 16-year-old girl ready to cheer at a football game.

Dr. Edgar again nodded his head, looked at me once, and walked off with his thoughts. Mom is one of my biggest cheerleaders, but I wanted to bury myself in the crowd of people still hoping to talk to Conroy or Edgar.

My grandmother, Mimi, and Mom, my number 1 cheerleader, wait hear Conroy and Edgar.

The moment Pat Conroy walks on the stage and shakes hands with Dr. Walter Edgar.

Real Conversation of the Greats

What makes a person great? What makes a writer unforgettable? An author need not be known throughout the world. He or she makes the difference when the writer composes the first word. In My Reading Lifewhich is a book I recommend for every writer—Conroy describes the influences in his writing life. He has read almost all books known in the world.

Conroy spoke with energy about his career and some of his most famous books. In each part of life, he found inspiration. He spoke of how young cadets treated each other at the Citadel, and it infuriated him. When he lost his teaching jobs, he wrote a memoir about his experience on Yamacraw Island, SC instructing poor students cut off from most of the world. Anger and heartbreak also drove him to write The Great Santini.

Another author, Hank Phillippi Ryan, said to me, “Write what you fear.” Conroy had much to fear in the early part of his life.

Do we, as writers, write what we fear?

I chose to write a book inspired by my grandfather because I was scared he would be forgotten and his brave action, in one circumstance, not remembered.

What do you learn from your greats?

The Sad Choice

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

Yesterday turned into today. A lot in education reaches inside me and disturbs my gut whether it is good or bad, so I decided it’s time to write about it:

I stand between

two lives.

Not the kind

of which

people gossip,

or the life and

death cliché.

I cannot decide

which way to

roll the dice

for the teacher

or the writer.

For two years,

I kept my hands

in both jars

hoping to dig

out the answer.

Retired teachers

reach the finish


they ran their race.

No longer the


first year who plans

to change a life.

They do their best

to make a difference.

The tests come.


kicked out.

Teach them the test,

and forget the rest.

“Write to the test,

Understand history

to a test, and

the math of a test.”

Ask next, “How do we

build a car engine?”

or “What is AP style

versus creative content?”

Punched in the stomach

when a kid said, “We’ll

go to the same

high school,

except for those who fail.”

The boy looks down.

He knows

more than

some will fail.

Make all As.

Fail the test.

The teacher’s fault.

Sue the school.

District, dust over

the tracks

of those

who think

you did wrong.

What happens next?

Give kindergarten kids

math assessments.

Take up their pencils

for the following

twelve years to

erase how to think.

Students’ voices,

teachers’ fears;

always someone blaming

while the other

warns teachers

not to talk.

“Be careful

of your opinions.”

A student could shove you.

You end up fired.

The tests do not look good.

Your salary is cut.

The teacher feeds children, too.

More and more,

they lose their time

and pay is cut again.

So I think I’ll stay closer

to the writer’s side

where someone still

shouts for,

not at,

the teacher.



Follow the Red Brick Road

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

I took the red brick road.

With two left feet, the 18-year-old version of me took her first step on the red bricks of the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe. In flip flops, other people would—and still—trip over bricks popping out of place since the 1800s.

The pathway not only took me to classes in the English building to Education; it was there through the good and bad.

On Saturday, I went to the South Carolina Book Festival. I also revisited college roots walking the Horseshoe. The temperature was the perfect blend of warm with a cool breeze; something also rare in Columbia. Flowers blossomed in gardens behind the college’s oldest buildings. A group of high school students took prom pictures. Two expectant moms took photos in front of a Gamecock (school mascot) decorated wreath with baby items.

Taking photos triggered memories. How many times did I notice this or that? I remember the time …

I remember so many times on the red brick road. I took it to a sorority at a time when I battled extreme insecurity, and not long after, I hit the path running. Hand in hand, I walked with my college boyfriend. He talked Science. I spoke of books. It also ended.

But, the Horseshoe did not lead me to the same dead end as the man buried next to it.

It led me to my destiny as a writer and person. In 2006, I dreamed of writing this book. It required a little research. Lucky me, I was a History major, and I mean the nerdy kind who looked forward to going to specific libraries.

Off the red brick road stands South Carolina’s first library. Fat, white columns hold up the bricks. It is the hall of worship. It has called me so many times.

The same library intimidated me the first time I stepped inside for book research; not school research. I used every bit of research I could find from a moonshiner’s journal, to microfilm, and political pamphlets from the 1920s. Sons of the Edisto was born in the South Carolinana Library. Rebecca T. Dickinson, the writer, began there, too.

Before the book, I still fiddled with poetry and did not consider myself much of a fiction writer. I had written one story for a class about a girl trying to run out of Columbia at the time Sherman was destroying the city. Even though some in my class liked it, I’d grown sick of Civil War stories and how much that war defined parts of the Southern cannon.

One of the few World War I or Great War memorials to stand on its own without World War II.

The History

With the help of the South Carolinana library—whose digital library and newspaper archives I still use—I began a project to show history of a different nature. The red brick road led me to a time when women’s skirts became shorter. A time when the train delivered Ford Model-Ts to Bamberg’s dealership. The age when families began driving from New York to Miami despite the lack of concrete roads and strong tires. They stopped in little towns like Bamberg, and fed its economy. Yes, the economy was in bloom. Storefronts were filled.

And at the heart of my book, the research deals with cold facts of reality. The Ku Klux Klan existed. It had 5 million members across the United States, including New York. It was a group that never should have come into being.

 Politicians used this group, that included educated men and women, to push its agendas. It was anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and racist towards blacks, Jews, Irish and Eastern Europeans.

I conclude the history lesson.

Without my walks on the red brick road, I would not have learned some tough lessons. I also would not have the story that has led me to write.

Follow your red brick road wherever it might lead.

Lines We Never Say

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

Inspiration flows from the fingertips of so many fellow bloggers. I try my best to keep up, but one—of many favorites—that never fails to make me think is The View Outside. She writes about many subjects in regards to writing and literature. Reading her sketches causes me to dream of somewhere private, away from chaos, where I would just write.

In a somewhat sarcastic humor after a day with second graders—some of whom did not know what walking or sit meant—I wrote a few lines between a couple most ardently in love.

Lines We Never Say

Boy: Look at these flowers.

Girl: Ah.

Boy: You like flowers, don’t you?

Girl: They die.


Boy: Do you like your bracelet?

Girl: Yeah.

Boy: Don’t you like the diamonds?

Girl: Sure. Diamonds are pretty.

Boy: You’re not excited.

Girl: Sure I am.


Boy: I have something special in mind.

Girl: Tonight?

Boy: Yes, tonight.

Girl: Okay.

Boy: Okay?

Girl: Sure. (To herself) He’ll snore right after anyways.

Boy: What is it you want?

Girl: Time.

Boy: I am giving you time with me tonight.

Girl: No, time.

Boy: Time to think?

Girl: Time to write.

A Blue Ridge Tale

Today is my birthday. One of the greatest gifts in my life is my husband. We’ve been through a lot together, but I am a hopeless romantic and always believed in that knock-you-off-your-feet feeling.

I began writing poems from the very moment I realized he was special and important. I have kept all the poems in a small manuscript entitled Love, Marriage and the Baby Carriage. One poem from the collection I posted previously Chalk Art. This one I wrote inspired by our journeys to the mountains.

Photo by Rebecca T. Dickinson, Sept. 2009

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

Oh, my soul,

Where do you go,

When fervors are high

and spirits low?

It left

as quick as a storm

sweeping through

an empty night.

To the mountains

and in the skies

there does

my spirit lie

With him, my love,

I climb

Far above

The cities and lights.

My soul is sold,

Like a boy


Long ago

Dealed the devil –

And dealed him well –

Gave him his soul

So his corn would grow.

The devil left hell

To make his claim

At the time

The boy’s life

Was said to end.

But He was tricked,

And tricked good.

The devil wondered

For miles and miles

Only to find

The boy was gone.

In those mountains,

The boy did climb

Higher and higher

Into the mists

Where he aspired

To watch the rivers

Become smaller.

The Blue Ridge

Showed mercy

Giving him back

His soul,

So long

As he

Would never leave.

He shook the limbs

Of the trees

And said,

“Here I will stay

And never leave.”

It was then

The waters came

Storming down;

Washing away

All the things

Threatening to take

The boy away.

Men’s voices echo

Through the years

Of lost love,

Trials and tears.

Their lives gone,

But Legend recalls

They are reason


Exist at all.

We sail,

My love and I,

On a mountain,

Through mists,

And the skies

Far from

Those who

Try to break

The love

We create.

People often

Turn old

Before their time.

They say mountains

Are ancient

With old beasts,

But it is there

Passions run wild

Like two youths

With a hunger

To run on the loose.

Photo by Rebecca T. Dickinson

© 2010-2012 by R.T. Dickinson. All rights reserved. No part of this manuscript or material related to it may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of R.T. Dickinson.

How We Create Worlds

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

Photo curteosy of

As I thought about blog ideas after the controversial article I wrote about joint custody and the drama that unfolded behind it in my previous four posts, I thought what should I write next?

The wonderful thing about becoming a writer is there is always something to write about whether it’s a thought, character, or a world.

If you were once a bright-eyed child like me, your parents and you might’ve read Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are. I know little about the author except that he died at 83, was not crazy about children, and had a vivid imagination. Pay attention. The last phrase is what’s important.

Sendak created a world that not only captured the imaginations of children, but adults, also.

How do you as a writer, reader or a professional in business approach the creation of your world whether it is a book or a set-up for a new business. It is not just about atmosphere. A world for your pages or creation must capture the imagination. First, it must captivate your imagination.

For example, a river has always held my interest. Perhaps—with the exception of ten months when I lived in the middle of tobacco country—I have always lived close to a water source. I’ve lived in two states with an ocean, grew up on a river, and for the short time I lived in England. I was twenty miles from the English Channel.

What does the name of my solo book manuscript happen to be, Sons of the Edisto? The Edisto is one of two rivers bordering a small—once active—town of Bamberg, SC. When I looked at old maps of the town and advertisements, I discovered a town full of life and hope at the turn of the twentieth century and into the 1960’s. But it was the idea of a river in a book leading me to it.

What gave Sendak the idea for Where the Wild Things Are? Did he have a dream? Was he inspired by someone or something?

Where do our worlds begin and end in our creations?

I think it must be inspiration from a single thought or person.

I encourage you this week and weekend to look at your work. What world have you built?

Or, perhaps, you haven’t built it yet. What sort of bridge are you waiting to cross?

I would like to hear your ideas about how you create worlds.

Photo courtesy of