The Ku Klux Klan had its beginning in the South immediately following the Civil War; its original purpose was to prevent freed slaves from gaining full rights of citizenship. Revived in the early years of the 20th century, the Klan expanded its campaign of hate and violence to include newer immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, and especially Jews and Catholics. Spreading into all parts of America, the Klan attempted to infiltrate small towns and enlist members by creating fear of those who are "different" and professing to embrace truly "American" values.
Witness tells the story of the Klan's attempt to recruit members in a small town in Vermont in 1924. A young black girl, Leanora Sutter, feels isolated by racial prejudice and her mother's recent death. She is befriended by Esther Hirsh, a younger Jewish girl, whose innocence and natural optimism provides a sharp contrast to the other characters. The Klan's hate-filled message of white supremacy is voiced by Merlin, a teenager, and Johnny Reeves, a minister in the town, who both become members. Other characters — the town constable and newspaper editor — try to walk a careful line of neutrality until they realize the importance of taking a stand. Storekeepers Viola and Harvey Pettibone represent two opposing reactions to the Klan's methods as they discuss the issue in their own home. Iris Weaver's character reflects a new freedom for women who had just gained the right to vote. Over the course of many months, residents are affected in many ways by pressures that build in the community, leading up to a climactic moment of violence. In the voices of eleven residents of the town, we experience this series of events from many different points of view, in the form of a poetic play in five acts. As the characters speak directly to the reader and relate the juxtaposition of acts of hate and love, violence and peace, terror and kindness, they illuminate the full range of human strengths and weaknesses in one small town.
Style and Theme
- Why did the author choose to tell the story in many different voices? How would your experience of this story be different if it were only told from the point of view of Leanora? of Esther? of Merlin? of Sara Chickering?
- The characters speak in a series of free verse poems, each having his or her own distinctive voice. What makes this style effective? How is this book similar to, or different from, Hesse's Newbery Award-winning Out of the Dust?
- Esther has a way of speaking that Leanora calls "funny talking." How do these speech patterns affect your perception of Esther? Why did the author choose this particular style for her voice?
- Sara Chickering says of the Klan: "There's a kind of power they wield, a deceptive authority." What does she mean by a deceptive authority? Why does the Klan burn crosses and hide their identity behind hoods and sheets?
- Archbishop Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has said: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." What does he mean by this? Which characters in Witness attempt to remain neutral in this situation? Which of them changes his or her position of neutrality?
- The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word "Witness" as "One who has seen or heard something . . ." or "an affirmation of a fact, statement, or event." Who are the witnesses in this story and what have they seen or heard? What does each of them affirm to be true? Why do you think the author chose this title for the book?
Characters and Setting
- Consider the characters of Leanora and Esther. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?
- What part does Iris Weaver play in the story? What is the importance of her character?
- Why do we never hear the voices of Mr. Sutter, Mr. Hirsh, and Mr. Field, but only hear about them from other people?
- When does Merlin begin to change his feelings about Leanora? What causes him to begin to fear the Klan rather than be drawn to it?
- What part do Viola and Harvey Pettibone play in the story? Why do you think we hear their two voices together, while all the other characters speak alone?
- Discuss the differences among these characters in the way they react to the Klan: Johnny Reeves, Reynard Alexander, Percelle Johnson, Harvey Pettibone, Mr. Field. What does the Klan represent to each of them? What does it represent to you?
- What is the connection between Sara Chickering and Esther? Why is Sara so protective of Esther? In what ways have Esther — and her father — made a difference in Sara's life? What other characters are changed during the story because of their connection to another person in the town?
Conflict and Resolution
- While there are some residents of the town who respond to the Klan's hate message, there are others who find themselves exhibiting new-found courage in resisting the Klan. Which of the characters do you feel exhibits true courage? What would you do if faced with the Klan's presence in your community?
- What lessons do we learn from Witness about ways to counteract prejudice and mistrust of people who are different from us? How did Sara overcome her prejudices? How did Leanora overcome hers? Will Merlin overcome his? How do you overcome yours?
A Conversation with Karen Hesse
How did you become interested in writing this story?
In 1997, while returning from a speaking engagement, I spent the last moments of my flight skimming the airline magazine and came across a short piece about the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont in the 1920s. I read the item, shaking my head in disbelief. Back home I wasted no time in attempting to disprove the article, but to my surprise it was correct. I read Maudean Neill's book about the Klan in Vermont, wrote to her about her research and tried to imagine how I might take this episode in history and craft a compelling story from it.
Did you know from the beginning how you wanted to write it?
No, I hit one dead end after another, so I finally tucked the idea away and worked on something else. A few years later I received an e-mail from my editor with the subject line: "Book Idea?" The message, which followed, read simply, "Remember Spoon River Anthology?" Suddenly the back corner of my brain flooded with light. I had performed Spoon River in high school. That was it! The path to the Klan project had been there all along, blazed by Edgar Lee Masters.
How much of the story is based on actual happenings in real life?
I do a lot of research for my books. I borrowed microfilm from libraries across Vermont and read seven or eight newspapers of 1923 and 1924 to get a sense of how much attention Vermonters paid to the Klan and what other events were going on at the time. One story in Maudean Neill's Fiery Crosses in the Green Mountains caught my interest, about a Klan family that had taken in a man and a child. The man and his son were not Jewish but certain people in the community thought they were and told the family they would have to leave the Klan because they were "harboring Jews." Many events in the book were inspired by news articles I came across, but that story gave me the human hook I needed to land the book.
Were some of the voices easier to write than others?
My gut knotted as I wrote from the point of view of characters whose lives were rooted in bigotry. But there were also narrators who made my heart soar. Disabling my censor, allowing each character to speak his or her mind, I have, in Witness, attempted to piece together a mosaic of a community giving birth to its conscience.
About the author
Karen Hesse was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. The year after she graduated from college, she and her husband tent-camped across the United Sates for six months. When they reached Brattleboro,VT they found the place they wanted to settle and have raised two daughters there. Since the publication of her first book in 1991, Karen Hesse has received numerous awards for her work, including a Christopher Medal for Letters from Rifka and the 1998 Newbery Medal for Out of the Dust.
Other books by Karen Hesse
Letters From Rifka. Henry Holt, 1992
The Music of Dolphins. Scholastic, 1996
Out of the Dust. Scholastic, 1997
Phoenix Rising. Henry Holt, 1994
Books to compare and contrast
Bat 6, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. Scholastic, 1998
The tradition of a sixth-grade girls' softball game between two rival towns — narrated in the voice of all eighteen girls on the two teams — is disrupted in the late 1940s by a prejudice born of World War II.
Circle of Fire, by William Hooks. Atheneum, 1992
In the tidewater country of North Carolina in 1936, three children try to thwart the plans of the Ku Klux Klan to destroy an encampment of Irish tinkers.
Give a Boy a Gun, by Todd Strasser. Simon & Schuster, 2000
Peer pressure, cliques, bullying and teacher apathy all lead to a climax of violence in one high school of today as told in the voices of many participants and an outside reporter.
Summer Battles, by Ann R. Blakeslee. Marshall Cavendish, 2000
Eleven-year-old Kath and her sister are spending the summer with their grandfather, a minister in Peaceable, Indiana, in 1926 when he is targeted by the local Klan for preaching against their message and for employing a black housekeeper.
Nothing But the Truth, by Avi. Orchard, 1991
Many points of view in this documentary novel indicate the various ways of experiencing a conflict when a ninth-grader defies his homeroom teacher and everyone suffers the consequences.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Harper Collins, 1999, copyright 1960.
Set in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, and told by the young daughter of the town's principled lawyer, Atticus Finch, this classic novel is an enduring story of race, class, justice, and the terrible consequences of prejudice.
The Wave, by Todd Strasser. Dell Laurel Leaf, 1981
Based on a true incident that occurred in a high school history class in California in 1969, a teacher demonstrates to his students the powerful forces of group pressure and their devastating effect on individual rights.
The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, by Janice Cohn. Whitman, 1995
The Decade that Roared, by Linda Jacobs Altman. Twenty-first Century, 1997
Hate Crimes, by Laura D'Angelo. Chelsea House, 1999
Hoods: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, by Robert Ingalls. Putnam, 1979
The Ku Klux Klan: America's Recurring Nightmare, by Fred J. Cook. Messner, 1989
Teaching Tolerance: Raising Open-Minded Empathetic Children, by Sara Bullard. Doubleday, 1996
www.splcenter.org (web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center) www.teachingtolerance.org (web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center) www.adl.org (web site of the Anti-Defamation League) www.facinghistory.org (web site of Facing History and Ourselves)
Discussion guide written by Connie Rockman, children's literature consultant and adjunct professor of literature for children and young adults at the University of Bridgeport, Sacred Heart University and Manhattanville College, and editor of The Eighth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators (H. W. Wilson, 2000).