Hesse, Karen. Witness. New York: Scholastic, 2001.

The text consists of a series of poems in free verse, each in the voice of one of eleven characters who all live in a small town in Vermont in the twenties.   The free verse here seems a little less free of verse than that in a number of other supposedly free verse novels I’ve been reading lately; each character does tend to have a distinctive voice, individual speech mannerisms and so on, and also, there’s some sense of implication–of wider meanings beyond the literal of the sort I expect of poetry:

daddy says:
how alone do you want to be, leonora?
you’re already nothing but a wild brown island.

So maybe this isn’t great verse but it is verse.

The novel describes events surrounding the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan in town.  The various characters express opinions about it–some favourable, most not so much.   The less Klan-favouring characters include a twelve-year-old African American girl and a six-year-old Jewish one, each in a family which is the sole representative of its race in the otherwise white, mostly Protestant town.  Each of these girls suffers from the prejudice of others–but also, as the novel progresses, finds friends and supporters, as a basic human decency emerges and then triumphs over the apparent appeal to morality and American values the Klan purportedly represents, and as knwledge of individuals triumphs over stereotypes.  As the Klan reveals an uglier side, more of the townspeople turn against it.

The novel then has the typical structure of fiction for young people–bad situations that get better, as horror moves gradually and apparently inevitably towards the utopian.  It seems neither convincing nor historically accurate–but I can’t deny it’s very satisfying as wish-fulfillment.  And in the midst of it all,  all sorts of other magical things happen, too.  A very prejudiced teenager learns to think of Jews and Negroes as individuals, even though he first flirts with the Klan; the Jewish girl and the black one both find the strength of character all on their own to come to the rescue of those who have made their prejudice against them clear and obvious–they;re ever so much better than their enemies, as, of course, all Jews and African-americans are.  Meanwhile, the worst of the Klan bigots has revealed a serious character weakness (he takes advantage of a young girl) and has left town (or died–it’s not exactly clear to me which), and many of the other townspeople have seen the light or developed the strength of character to publicly profess the anti-Klan feelings they’ve been hiding; the world is, by the end, a gloriously better place.  The novel has something like the structure of a traditional girl’s book, like Heidi or Anne of Green Gables.  The innocent, whimsical, and charming Jewish girl, a new arrival in a rural place, shows the way to her elders by charming them with her utter spontaneity and innocence and connections with the natural world around her, just as Heidi and Anne of Green Gables did.

So what is gained here by the use of the many alternating focalizers?  As I’ve discovered is typical in a book with a large number of alternating focalizers, the focus is on how individuals relate to a community.  Here as most often, many isolated voices tend either to become entwined into a more complete and integrated community, or refuse to do so and must leave the group–skip town.  Readers get to see how a range of different individuals react to the same events, how they see and make sense of the same things differently, and how their actions have differing impacts on each other.  Readers also know ways in which the characters affect each other that they are not themselves aware of–an overriding knowledge of everybody that gives greater insights into the meanings and implications of each of their individual perceptions.  Thus, knowing of the fear and sensitivity and basic niceness of the black girl as we overhear vher thoughts and responses, readers have information that contradicts and trumps the blind prejudice of the Klan leader and minister.  Readers also know that the teenage boy accused of shooting the Jewish girl’s father is not guilty, and who is, and so have that soap opera pleasure of hoping secrets are revealed in time to save the innocent.  As, of course, they are.

Witness is presented as if it were a play–divided into five sections, labelled Act One, Act Two, and so on.  But there is in fact nothing inherently dramatic in it.  There are no interactions between the characters–no dialogue except in the sections involving a husband and wife who talk together.  Otherwise, what all the characters do is just think about things they’ve already done and experienced–readers are privy, it seems to what goes on inside their minds, the one thing that theatre usually keeps us ignorant of (except in terms of how characters express it to each other–the exception, I guess, is the Shakespearean soliloquy, and these poems are indeed sort of like that).   There is, I guess, a kind if dialogue in terms of the ones readers can construct from hearing how the differing voices understand each other; but it is an act of readerly construction, not something that actually happens in the book itself.  So it’s only theoretically dramatic, a theoretical drama that develops in terms of the alternating structure.  As in other free verse novels, each individual section is quite isolated from and separate from all the others, and it’s up to a reader to work out how it all fits together and to see contradictions and connections and communal ties that characters themselves are rarely ware of.  In a sense, the structure creates the community, in ways the community itself can’t possibly be aware of.

So it’s a trick of structure that becomes thematic here, and that reveals aspects of the characters’ lives never really known by them individually or even as a group.  Perhaps all alternating narratives imply that sort of interactive meaning larger than anything known by the individual alternating characters–and perhaps all require this sort of relational work of readers, putting separate streams of information  together to see more than the characters do.  Which is what happens in the theatre as audiences view a well-made and well-directed and -acted play.  So maybe alternating narrative is inherently dialogical?

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