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.