Katie Fitzgerald's Reviews > Witness

Witness by Karen Hesse
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it was ok
bookshelves: genre-historical-fiction, genre-poetry, level-middle-grade, 2018

Though there is a list of characters (complete with photographs) at the start of this book, it was very difficult to keep track of who each person was. The adults frequently sounded like children, and no one sounded especially realistic. The characters mostly sounded like talking heads for putting across certain beliefs that were held by individuals and groups of the time period. Six-year-old Esther Hirsh, part of the Jewish family in the story, was probably the only voice I instantly recognized each time it appeared, and that was only because of an annoying affectation in her speech, where she uses the verb "to do" in front of every verb ("I did go," "she does go," "we did see," etc.) and also adds an "ing" ending to words that don't need it ("we can have thinkings," "I do have talkings to God," etc.) I'm guessing it was meant to show her immaturity and childishness, but because she made the same errors in every instance, she didn't feel like an authentic kid, just a caricature of one. The character who was hardest for me to remember was Iris Weaver, whose only role in the story is to run illegal rum. She could have been edited out without changing a thing about the plot.

I also thought that, for a book that is supposed to be about witnessing history, it kept the reader pretty distant from the events of the story, and even from the emotions of the characters. There were some nice moments, but mostly I wondered whether kids with no awareness of the existence of the KKK would be able to figure out what the book was really about, or how it felt to live in a place where the Klan was an imminent threat. Some major things happen in this book - including a suicide! - and yet, the delivery of each segment of the plot feels flat and disconnected.

The lack of capitalization also struck me as an odd and unnecessary choice that alienated me further from a book I initially expected to like. I understand that free verse is not meant to conform to the conventions of prose, but it seemed silly to me that at the very least proper names were not capitalized. An author's note explaining this decision could conceivably have changed my mind, but without such a thing, it just felt random, and therefore distracting.

It was irritating, too, to read hints toward the future in some of the poems. I know part of the goal of historical fiction is to educate future generations about the past and its mistakes, but pointed and preachy statements like "future take note" and comments on the fact that some people always think "that everything/approached perfection/only in the/good old days" feel out of place and awkward. If this novel were strong enough to deliver its intended message, over-explanations like this would not be necessary to drive home the story's moral.

I like novels in verse, and I have liked books by Karen Hesse, but this book just did not meet my expectations. I think it could work okay to supplement a lesson about the KKK and the 1920s, and it might have special appeal to families with roots in the state of Vermont, but otherwise, it was really just okay for me, and it seems like its flaws become more obvious the more I think about it.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 27, 2018 – Shelved
January 27, 2018 – Shelved as: genre-historical-fiction
January 27, 2018 – Shelved as: genre-poetry
January 27, 2018 – Shelved as: level-middle-grade
January 27, 2018 – Finished Reading
December 24, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018

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