Saturday, May 7, 2016


by Karen Hesse
Recommended Ages: 12+

In her 1997 Newbery Medal-winning historical novel Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse gambled on telling the story of the Oklahoma dust bowl in the form of poems by the main character. She raises the bet in this 2001 book, telling a story about racism in small-town Vermont, circa 1924, through poems alternating between the points-of-view of 11 different characters. And in case you don't notice how experimental this is, she does it entirely without capital letters.

I'm not sure what the lack of capitals accomplishes, but the result of the story being told in snippets of monologue and dialogue is a quasi-dramatic unfolding of the events and what the characters think about them. I could picture a theater company performing the book on stage, word for word - but with the exception of one married couple's back-and-forth banter, the characters do not actually talk to each other. I would visualize them all delivering "asides" to the audience. There's a newspaper editor, whose lines might be taken as excerpts from a series of weekly editorials; a preacher, whose bits seem to be fragments of his sermons, at least in his head; a town constable, who seems to be thinking aloud as he struggles with his conscience; a doctor, who might be penning his memoirs; and others who might even be imagined as telling their eyewitness stories to an interested writer. Exactly what these floating speech bubbles signify, seems to be up to the reader to decide. As you add up what all these narrators are telling you, you gradually put together a mental picture of just what happened.

What happened is, sometime during the presidency of Vermont's own Calvin Coolidge, the Ku Klux Klan tried to spread its movement of anti-Catholic, anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-foreign "Americanism" to Vermont. Ultimately the organization was denied a license to operate there. But for a while, as this story dramatizes, one small town gets a big taste of what the KKK can bring. Some people are slow to see it for what it is. The newspaper editor, for example, vows to "remain neutral in the face of the klan question" (sic) until given reason to do otherwise; a shopkeeper ignores his wife's advice and tries to position himself as the KKK-friendly store in town; the constable and a local bootlegger both miss opportunities to do good because they aren't sure where their responsibilities lie. As a journalist, I am proud it's the newspaper man who grows the most in his understanding of what the KKK means:
persecution is not american.
it is not american to give the power of life and death
to a secret organization.
it is not american to have our citizens judged by
an invisible jury.
it is not american to have bands of night riders
apply the punishments of medieval europe to
freeborn men.

the ku klux klan must go.
Then, on the one had, you meet a revivalist preacher who has done many bad things, but currying favor with the KKK proves to be his fatal mistake, and a hot-headed youth whose racist sympathies almost put a noose around his neck; and on the other hand, a little Jewish girl who brings joy to a spinster farmer's heart, and an African-American girl whose anger against white people is cooled by her growing friendship with an old Civil War veteran.

This is a book containing some mature material, including a subtle depiction of a child-molesting minister, some violence, and a suicide. It depicts race-baiting language and behavior by KKK members and sympathizers, up to an attempted murder and a conspiracy to poison an entire family. It also features various characters' thoughts about such incidents as the Leopold-Loeb case, when two young men were tried for the thrill-murder of a 14-year-old boy. Above all, it is an unsparing look at the way everyone in a community, at whatever level of involvement in events, may share some responsibility for them. And it also illustrates some good examples of people saying No to the cult of hate.

In case this review gives readers a discouraging idea that this is simply a book of dry historical fiction, cloaked in weird poetry, and all advancing a political agenda, let me also mention it is very moving on a human level. The black girl's growing friendship with the old white man; the teenage yahoo's growing doubts about the rightness of his racist ideas; and especially the way the Jewish girl and her father grow on that lady farmer, provide more than enough warmth and joy to light you through this novel. And there's a macabre, perhaps even supernatural twist at the end.

Hesse's other young-adult novels also include Letters from Rifka, about a Jewish family emigrating to the U.S. after the Russian Revolution; Stowaway, about James Cook's 1768 voyage of exploration; Brooklyn Bridge, about the family who created the teddy bear; and most recently, the dystopian-future tale Safekeeping.

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