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Byline: The Register-Guard

"Witness"

By Karen Hesse

Scholastic, 2001

Recommended age group: 10 to 14

The winners of the 2003 Young Readers Choice Award have been selected, so it's time to begin reading the titles on next year's list.

There's no better place to start than with an invitation by Karen Hesse to bear witness to the events of a small Vermont town in 1924. It is a story told in five acts in the voices of 11 different characters. They represent many walks of life but only two points of view - belief in the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan or fear and hatred for what the Klan might do to their close-knit community.

Two of the youngest characters become the focus for possible violence early in the story. Leanora Sutter, a 12-year old African-American girl, has lived peacefully with her family in town for a long time. But when their wagon breaks down in the freezing rain, no one will help, and the cold they must endure leads to Leanora's mother's death.

Six-year-old Esther Hirsh is new to town and is unaware of the threats made toward her and her Jewish father. When shots are fired through the door of the house where they are staying, Esther's father is seriously injured and the townspeople are finally forced to confront the Klan problem.

All fingers point to one person as the likely guilty party, but Leanora knows he is innocent - at least of this particular act. Should she make him pay for all the other cruelties he is guilty of? Esther saw who did it, but the demons that drove him to this act may already have destroyed one life. Is she old enough to understand the power of the truth she knows?

Just as in her Newbery Award-winning book "Out of the Dust," Hesse uses a sparse, free-verse style that makes us pay attention to every word. Readers must listen to many perspectives and ultimately find the one that is their own.

The story is based on real events from 1924. Unfortunately, readers will be able to make contemporary connections to these historical characters while recognizing how difficult it can be to tell the difference between the faces of good and evil.

- Linda Ague, librarian, Cal Young Middle School, Eugene
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Title Annotation:Review; Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 5, 2003
Words:382
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