Bearing Witness through Reader’s Theater: Witness by Karen Hesse

by Dean Schneider

Upper elementary school through high school

The narrative poems in Karen Hesse’s
Witness represent a cast of characters in a novel intended to be read as reader’s theater, as a play in five acts. Reader’s theater differs from staged productions in its simplicity and informality. Though there are many approaches to reader’s theater, I keep it simple. The text itself is the script. For Witness, I assign parts, matching students with characters, and they simply read their parts from their seats. In Witness 11 voices tell the story of when the Ku Klux Klan came to town. For such a simply worded novel, Witness is an utterly compelling, absorbing, and moral story.

Plot Summary

Vermont, 1924. The Klan is interested in renting the town hall for their meetings. “why not?” say some folks. there’s not a thing to stop them. we might as well join them. . . . / they’re good men, / 100 percent american men. / and they might bring us some business.” The Klan appeals to the disgruntled, the petty schemers, and the bigots. Their followers are people offended by how girls dance now, how women don’t stay at home as they should, by the presence of two children new to the town: Leanora Sutter, 12, who is black, and Esther Hirsh, 6, who is Jewish. Maybe the Klan will clean up the town, crack down on “loose morals and lawbreakers.”

But it is the very presence of these children that persuades others of the need to take sides to protect the children and, ltimately, the town. Newspaperman Reynard Alexander says early on that he intends to remain neutral on the Klan issue “until i have reason / to do otherwise.” He soon witnesses the need to speak up on behalf of the children, the outsiders, and his own newspaper.

Forty-two-year-old Sara Chickering has taken in Esther Hirsh. She walks with her through meadows, teaches her the names of plants and flowers and birds, and even catches a 37-pound carp with her. Sara realizes that if Esther hadn’t entered her life, the Klan might have, and she realizes the need to protect this little Jewish girl: “to think of what they could drive from my life / with their filthy / little / minds.” The children—Leanora and Esther—become the fulcrum for the town’s scale of values. When Sara says that “it took having the Hirshes here / to see straight through / to the end of it,” she sounds like Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s
To Kill a Mockingbird: “So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses, didn’t it?”

Sara is a very likable character, one readers should follow closely. Her warmth, her love of Vermont, and her love of Esther are the heart of the story. Reynard Alexander should be followed closely, too. After his early pledge of neutrality, he starts to realize that “when that sort of scoundrel / starts hiding under hood and robes, / no good can come of it.” And when someone shoots at Esther and her father through Sara Chickering’s door, and Leanora Sutter’s father receives death threats, people realize that the Klan is no longer just a problem in some other state, some other community; it is right there in their midst, and if they don’t do something, they’ll “fall to pieces.”

Ultimately, it is the day-to-day, ordinary kind acts of good people—and of the people like Merlin Van Tornhout, who could have gone either way but decided he was civilized after all—that turn the tables on the Klan. By the end of the story the Secretary of State of Vermont rejects the application of the Ku Klux Klan to do business in the state. Viola Pettibone’s good sense prevails in her marriage, Reynard Alexander’s newspaper is alive and well, Leanora and Esther have found a home, and even Merlin Van Tornhout leaves town rather than do the Klan’s bidding. He returns with the understanding and new appreciation that Leanora Sutter “wasn’t just / a colored girl.” But this is no fairy tale; readers are left with the shivery sense of how things might have turned out differently.

In the Classroom

I teach
Witness after reading
To Kill a Mockingbird, because I like the connections I can make between the two books. The shared themes of small-town life, the innocence of children, prejudice, and the resistance to prejudice make for excellent discussions and writing activities. For the same reason,
Witness can be a vital addition to a Holocaust unit. As Hazel Rochman said in her
Booklist review of
Witness, “Add this book to the Holocaust curriculum, not because every racial incident means genocide, but because the book will spark discussion about how such a thing can happen even now.”

Witness was originally written as a courtroom drama, hence the connotation of witnesses in a trial. In the larger sense, though, the whole Vermont town became witnesses to the scoundrels in their midst. And, as Elie Wiesel has eloquently stated about the Holocaust, indifference can be a great evil. Newspaperman Reynard Alexander came to realize the necessity of not being indifferent, of not letting decency and civilization slip away. He saw the need to bear witness, regain sense, and act on behalf of what is right to “mend the rents” in the fabric of the state.

More than ever, students seem to enjoy performing and bringing their reading alive in class. In both
Exploding the Myths: The Truth about Teenagers and Reading (Scarecrow, 2001) and
Beyond the Pale: New Essays for a New Era (Scarecrow, 2003), Marc Aronson writes insightfully about novels written in multiple narratives. Meant to be performed, these novels engage students in their reading, and, as Aronson says, “the individual adds in her own experience, his own insight, to complete the story.” The difference between Witness and a more traditional play seems to be in how much is left to the reader to bring the play to life. There are no stage directions, no prompts as to how we should think or feel, and no happy endings with all loose ends tied unambiguously together. As Aronson says, readers must “decide for themselves how to piece together life’s competing and overwhelming narratives.” The simple words of
Witness belie a complicated reading experience that totally involves readers.

Reader’s theater certainly makes the classroom lively, and hearing good language is essential for young readers. Now there are more and more novels that are meant to be performed. Following the suggestions for discussions and activities related to
Witness is a list of novels representing the growing body of works that can be performed as reader’s theater in the classroom.

Discussion (Oral and Written)

  • Explain why Leanora would feel like a “wild brown island,” as her daddy describes her on p.7.
  • Explain why Harvey Pettibone is attracted to the Klan.
  • Contrast Violet and Harvey Pettibone.
  • Describe the ways in which the Klan tries to move into town.
  • Identify the characters who are involved with the Klan. What does each of these characters find attractive about the Klan?
  • Give examples of how Johnny Reeves stirs up hate. Why does he want to join the Klan? How does he later prove to be a hypocrite?
  • Describe Sara Chickering. What kind of person is she? What are her interests? Describe her relationship

    with Esther.
  • Identify the characters who originally supported the Klan but later changed their minds. Why did

    they change their minds?
  • In an interview with Leonard Marcus, Karen Hesse calls Mr. Field a “catalyst for Leanora’s growth.” Reread Leanora’s narratives, beginning in Act Two, and trace the effect Mr. Field has on her.
  • Describe Iris Weaver. Why is she the kind of person unlikely to be influenced by the Klan?
  • Reynard Alexander originally pledges neutrality “in the face of the klan question.” Reread his narratives and trace the change in his thinking. How and why does he change?
  • Merlin Van Tornhout has racist and anti-Semitic leanings and is attracted to the Klan. Why does he end up not in the Klan? Trace the complicated evolution of his conscience.
  • Explain what Sara Chickering means by “it took having the Hirshes here / to see straight through / to the end of it.”
  • Why did the Klan fail to take hold in Vermont? What forms of resistance did they encounter? What does this say about the people of this town and state?
  • Explain the title of the novel. Research what the term
    bearing witness means to Holocaust survivors. How might this apply to the characters in


  • Perform the whole book as reader’s theater and see it as an exercise in close reading. Stop frequently and check back to see what a character said previously, in order to trace character development and monitor changes in

  • Ask each student to follow one character especially closely, both the character and what’s said about the character.
  • At the end of the novel, have students write sketches on the characters they have followed throughout their reading. They should describe the characters and show how they changed in the course of the story.
  • Have students write papers on why the Klan failed in Vermont. What forms did resistance to the

    Klan take?
  • Write a character sketch of Mr. Field, as we come to know him through Leanora’s narratives.
  • Write brief reports on the following topics: the Ku Klux Klan; the Leopold and Loeb case; Clarence Darrow; The Birth of a Nation; John Philip Sousa; Calvin Coolidge; flappers; Prohibition; Helen Keller; women’s right to

    vote; Vermont in the 1920s.
  • Read Harper Lee’s
    To Kill a Mockingbird. Compare and contrast the mob scene in it with the Klan’s presence in
    Witness. Compare Scout and Esther. Compare Atticus’ statement “So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses, didn’t it?” with Sara Chickering’s “it took having the Hirshes here / to see straight through / to the end of it.”

Selected Novels for Reader’s Theater

Fleischman, Paul.
Mind’s Eye. 1999. 112p. Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.50 (0-440-22901-4).

Gr. 8–up. Fleischman is a master of performance novels.
Mind’s Eye works well in high school and provides an

opportunity to tie in many of the classical references and turn English class into a minicourse on Renaissance

art and architecture. His
Seek (Cricket, 2001) would work with seventh grade and up, and his books
Seedfolks (HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, 1997) and
Bull Run (HarperCollins, 1993) will engage younger readers.

Hovey, Kate.
Voices of the Trojan War. Illus. by Leonid Gore. 2004. 128p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K.

McElderry, $17.95 (0-689-85768-3).

Gr. 5–up. Performing this book is an effective way to involve young readers in the story of the Trojan War. This works best if students already know the story, perhaps through a read-aloud version. Then this can be performed in class as reader’s theater. Hovey’s
Arachne Speaks (Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, 2000) and
Ancient Voices (Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, 2004) are excellent additions to any mythology unit and are also good for reader’s theater.

Janeczko, Paul B.
Worlds Afire. 2004. 112p. Candlewick, $15.99 (0-7636-2235-4).

Gr. 7–12. Janeczko tells of a 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut, through the voices of the various people involved. Like Fleischman’s
Bull Run, mentioned above, this is history told in the voices of those who lived it.

Myers, Walter Dean.
Monster. Illus. by Christopher Myers. 1999. 288p. HarperCollins/Amistad, $15.95 (0-06-028077-8); HarperTempest, paper, $6.99 (0-06-440731-4).

Gr. 8–up. Steve Harmon’s apparent minor involvement in a crime leads to jail time and moral introspection. This popular, groundbreaking novel is perfect for reader’s theater for older students, with its mature themes, innovative format, and large cast of characters in a courtroom drama.

Wolf, Allan.
New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery. 2004. 512p. Candlewick, $18.99 (0-7636-2113-7).

Gr. 5–up. Wolf’s monologues with poetic lines are told in the voices of Lewis and Clark and 12 other members of the Corps of Discovery. Fifth-graders at my school read excerpts from this mammoth novel as part of their study of the

famous expedition.

Wolff, Virginia Euwer.
Make Lemonade. 1993. 208p. Holt, $17.95 (0-8050-2228-7); Scholastic Point, paper, $5.99 (0-590-48141-X).

Gr. 7–12. Along with Myers’
Monster, above, this was one of the early groundbreaking novels in free verse. It’s the story of a single mother, her babysitter and friend, and their dreams for a better life. Wolff’s
True Believer (Simon

& Schuster/Atheneum, 2001), the second of a planned
Make Lemonade trilogy, is excellent for a high-school audience. Wolff’s
Bat 6 (Scholastic, 1998), about prejudice surfacing in a 1949 softball game between two small

Oregon towns, was also performed as reader’s theater at my school.

Listed below are articles from past issues of
Book Links that are related to this topic.

  • “Holocaust Survivors, Rescuers, and Bystanders,” January 1999, p.54
  • “Hassle-Free Drama: The Joy of Reader’s Theater,” August/September 2001, p.57

Dean Schneider teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.