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Award-winning author Karen Hesse's latest book covers a surprising series of events. It takes place in 1924, in Vermont, as the Ku Klux Klan begins to move into a quiet town. You didn't know that the Klan was active in the North? Me neither. History books make it sound like a strictly southern force --- but as the real events on which Hesse based this book prove that it's just not so.

At first, the book looks as though it may be a play: each character is seen with their picture attached. But, in fact, the novel is written in verse. One 12-year-old character, Leanora Sutter, is the only black girl in the small town. She befriends an odd Jewish girl named Esther, even though Esther is half her age. Together they face the stream of prejudice spewed forth by the Klan. 

Their small town is not used to the ways of the Klan. Many are drawn into it because of the friendship its members share; others honestly believe, for a short time, that the Klan is looking out for the best interests of the town. By the time people realize what it is really about, hateful, violent acts begin happening late at night. Those who have joined are frightened. Those who opposed the Klan to begin with are terrified. Esther's father is shot at, and Mr. Sutter's friend is threatened repeatedly.  

Hesse creates wonderful characters --- the creepy Reverend Reeves, sassy Iris Weaver, and most of all, Leanora and Esther. In WITNESS we see that even in the smallest town, people run the gamut of personalities: from almost evil to amazingly brave and good. The action and suspense kept me turning the pages.

As a big fan of Karen Hesse, I couldn't help but be troubled by one factor in this novel --- the voice of Esther. It seems too obviously to be based on the wonderful and little-known writings of Opal Whiteley. For someone who is normally as historically accurate as Karen Hesse, I was disappointed that she didn't take this opportunity to let readers know about Opal. 

Still, WITNESS is a great read about a fascinating topic. If you want historical fiction about the Ku Klux Klan, read this. Karen Hesse doesn't cut corners on gritty and frightening details. But, if you want an amazing and poetic read where you feel like you're in a whole other world, pick up Opal Whiteley, and spread the word: she's so cool, she might have been the world's first peace-loving hippie.

Reviewed by Kate Torpie on September 1, 2001

by Karen Hesse

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2001
  • Hardcover: 161 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • ISBN-10: 0439271991
  • ISBN-13: 9780439271998