Karen Hesse 1952-
Karen Hesse 1952-
Karen Hesse 1952-
American author of juvenile novels, chapter books, young adult novels, juvenile biographies, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Hesse's career through 2008. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 54.
Winner of the Newbery Medal for Out of the Dust (1997), Hesse is principally known for her broad repertoire of historical fiction and picture books which demonstrate a dynamism of voice, place, and feeling. Despite the relative brevity of her career—her first published novel came in 1991—Hesse is among the most critically-honored contemporary children's authors, having earned, in addition to her Newbery, a Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction for Out of the Dust, two Christopher Awards for Letters from Rifka (1992) and Witness (2001), and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2002. Her varied works address a multitude of topics, ranging from a recreation of Captain Cook's famous sea voyages around the South Pacific in Stowaway (2000) to Lester's Dog (1993), a picture book about a child overcoming his fears of a frightening neighborhood dog.
Hesse was born on August 29, 1952, in Baltimore, Maryland. Raised in a row house with her brother, Mark, in the Pimlico area of Baltimore, Hesse moved with her family to a larger apartment outside the city when she was a young girl. Hesse formed a youthful attachment to books; an early favorite was John Hershey's Hiroshima, which would help to inspire her own enduring interest in historical fiction. She found early support for her writing in an encouraging fifth-grade teacher, support that led to an interest in writing that continued throughout her college studies at Towson State University and later the University of Maryland, from where she eventually graduated. While still in college, Hesse was married to Randy Hesse in 1971, though after the U.S. Navy stationed him in the Mediterranean, Hesse stayed behind, enabling her to complete her bachelor's degree in 1975. After college, she took a position as a benefits coordinator for her alma mater, though her varied interests led her to a wealth of career experiences, including holding positions as a teacher, librarian, typesetter, proofer, and advertising secretary for Country Journal magazine. She moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, with her husband in 1976, and their first daughter, Kate, was born in 1980. A second daughter, Rachel, followed in 1983, and Hesse took it upon herself to instill in them her own love of literature, reading books to her daughters nightly. Having worked as a typesetter on various children's books, she was left unimpressed by many juvenile texts and believed she could produce better works herself. Committing herself to children's literature, a process which included founding a local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and leading a writer's group, Hesse spent several years submitting proposals to various children's publishers. Her breakthrough came from a series of picture book proposals Hesse sent to editor Brenda Bowen, who suggested Hesse flesh out an idea about an underprivileged family and their burgeoning hopes that a stuffed unicorn may actually be magical. Altering the manuscript from picture book-length into a longer middle school novel, the story, titled Wish on a Unicorn (1991), marked Hesse's first published children's novel.
While Hesse is perhaps best known for her emotively rendered historical fiction, her canon is remarkably attuned to childhood struggles true of any child from any time period. Major themes of disability and children under duress are readily evinced throughout her books, with Hesse demonstrating an empathetic narrative strategy that often utilizes free verse as a means of emotive expression. Perhaps as an extension of her expression of the powerlessness of the child's perspective, Hesse routinely features an extensive array of emotionally and physically disabled children who, whether serving as the primary protagonists or in supporting roles, are nonetheless figures of strength. Hesse's picture books are especially notable for these rare portrayals of disability within children's literature, with such characters as the mentally challenged Hannie of Wish on a Unicorn, the hearing impaired Corey of Lester's Dog, and the charismatic albeit learning disabled Justus Faulstitch of Just Juice (1998), three unique texts that all expose developing readers to unlikely heroes. Similarly, Hesse's young adult novels are often distinguished by the forced adversity she imposes upon her central characters through cultural, societal, or economic pressures. In two of her longer novels, Letters from Rifka and A Time of Angels (1995), Hesse uses illness and flight as a means of expressing childhood trauma. In Time of Angels, fourteen-year-old Hannah Gold finds herself stranded alone in 1918 Vermont away from her parents—who are themselves trapped in Russia—and her baby sisters, who stayed behind in Boston after an influenza epidemic forced Hannah into the countryside for her own protection. A series of misunderstandings leave her in the hands of a pacifistic German-American farmer who cares for her when she nonetheless contracts the disease from which she fled. Articulately depicting her exposure to disease, loss, death, and racial prejudice, the story is atypical for its complex handling of a diverse array of major thematic elements.
Similarly, twelve-year-old Rifka Nerbot of Letters from Rifka is exposed to a series of harsh realities in her attempts to emigrate from Russia to America in 1919. Told in journal format, the story relays Rifka's enormous difficulties in making the journey to a new home, a trip that eventually necessitates Rifka's separation from the rest of her family when a case of ringworm leads to her forced detainment in Belgium, an event that comes on the heels of her contraction of typhus in Poland. Making her way to Ellis Island in New York, Rifka travels alone before an eventual reunion with her family. Like all of Hesse's historical novels, the stories of Hannah and Rifka are notable for their evocative period details and cultural underpinnings as well as their depictions of strong female characters. These characteristics also describe Hesse's award-winning Out of the Dust and its fully realized renderings of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and its fourteen-year-old heroine, Billie Jo Kerber. Again written in a journal format that lends an air of intimacy between reader and author, Out of the Dust follows Billie Jo's family as they face another in a series of crop failures that characterized the Depression-era Dust Bowl period. The family's tragedy is compounded when a fire in the family home—which is exacerbated by a misplaced bucket of kerosene which Billie Jo mistakes for water—results in the death of her mother and newly-born brother. Now the subject of town gossip that implicitly blames her for the fire, Billie Jo also suffers from terrible burns to her hands that destroy both her aptitude for playing the piano and, as a result, her dreams of escaping the desolation of her unhappy home in Joyce City. Ultimately, the story offers greater themes of responsibility, hope, and forgiveness amidst the endless dust and tragedy. Like all of Hesse's historical stories, the book's novel use of poetics and establishment of a fixed and tangible sense of place forge a vivid tableau of sadness and beauty.
Despite a career stretching less than twenty years, Hesse has earned a series of critical accolades usually reserved for veteran children's authors. In addition to her Newbery Medal, Hesse's presentation with the so-called MacArthur "Genius Grant" was only the second ever for a writer of children's literature. While she remains best known for her multifaceted historical fiction, her contemporary novels and picture books have proven equally popular with critics, prompting Elizabeth Devereaux to call Hesse an "author distinguished by her range of subjects and mastery of genres." Out of the Dust has remained her most critically lauded work to date, with Walton Beacham praising the novel as "a sophisticated work of literature." Calling it "her signature work," Thomas S. Owens has hailed the book as "a literary groundbreaker as stunning as Oklahoma's dust bowl recovery." Despite the high profile of Out of the Dust, several other of Hesse's historical novels have been further singled out for praise, including the factually-inspired Letters from Rifka, which won the both International Reading Association's Children's Book of the Year and a Christopher Award. Similarly, Hesse's free verse style of narration has been complimented for its emotive relatability regardless of audience, with John Peters, in his review of Come On, Rain! (1999), commenting that "Hesse writes with spare, poetic intensity, enriching Tessie's narrative further with lively metaphor." For Wendy J. Glenn, the voices of Stowaway and Witness "unite to perpetuate Hesse's message of hope, that we may be free to be who we choose, regardless of whether we are born boys or girls." Betsy Hearne has found similar value in Hesse's future-set novel of nuclear catastrophe, Phoenix Rising (1994), suggesting that its subtextual message shines through, enabling children to formulate "their own thoughts about social action."
Wish on a Unicorn (young adult novel) 1991
Letters from Rifka (young adult novel) 1992
Lavender [illustrations by Andrew Glass] (chapter book) 1993
Lester's Dog [illustrations by Nancy Carpenter] (picture book) 1993
Poppy's Chair [illustrations by Kay Life] (picture book) 1993
Phoenix Rising (young adult novel) 1994
Sable [illustrations by Marcia Sewall] (picture book) 1994
A Time of Angels (young adult novel) 1995
The Music of Dolphins (young adult novel) 1996
Out of the Dust (young adult novel) 1997
Just Juice [illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker] (chapter book) 1998
Come On, Rain! [illustrations by Jon J. Muth] (picture book) 1999
A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin (juvenile novel) 1999
Stowaway [illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker] (young adult novel) 2000
Witness (young adult novel) 2001
Aleutian Sparrow [illustrations by Evon Zerbertz] (young adult novel) 2003
The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah through History [illustrations by Brian Pinkney] (picture book) 2003
The Cats in Krasinski Square [illustrations by Wendy Watson] (picture book) 2004
The Young Hans Christian Andersen [illustrations by Erik Blegvad] (juvenile biography) 2005
Brooklyn Bridge (young adult novel) 2008
Spuds [illustrations by Wendy Watson] (picture book) 2008
Karen Hesse and Elizabeth Devereaux (interview date 8 February 1999)
SOURCE: Hesse, Karen, and Elizabeth Devereaux. "Karen Hesse: A Poetics of Perfection." Publishers Weekly 246, no. 6 (8 February 1999): 190-91.
[In the following interview, Hesse discusses her writing career, her use of various literary forms in her works, and the creation of her picture book Come On, Rain!.]
Imagine Meryl Streep playing the part of a Newbery Medalist, and you have some notion of Karen Hesse's earnestness and intensity. An author distinguished by her range of subjects and mastery of genres, she by her own account does nothing by halves—and that, apparently, includes giving an interview. Seated with PW in her office, a modest room with a cozily sloping ceiling, on the top floor of her house in Brattleboro, Vt., she puts so much thought into her comments that only the ring of the telephone alerts her to the passing time: more than three hours have rolled by, and she has forgotten to break for lunch.
Then again, pausing for the most accurate answer and carefully emphasizing every phrase are what a reader would expect from Hesse. Her Newbery winner, Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997) is written entirely in free verse; her dozen other books are narrated in prose, but reflect a poet's respect for the weight of each word. Discussing her newest books—Just Juice (Scholastic, Nov.; Children's Forecasts, Sept. 21, 1998), a middle-grade story about a family in severely straitened circumstances, and Come On, Rain! (Scholastic, Mar.; Children's Forecasts, Nov. 30, 1998), an exuberant picture book about urban girls playing in a summer storm—reviewers uniformly praised Hesse's powerful imagery and rigorously honed, immediate language.
In fact, Hesse began her writing career as a poet, publishing while still in college (she graduated from the University of Maryland in 1975 and with her husband, Randy Hesse, moved to Brattleboro the following year). "I found some degree of success in the world of adult poetry," she says, referring loosely to awards and invitations to read on different campuses.
But when she became pregnant with her first daughter, Kate, now 19, the poetry stopped. "I couldn't block off enough creative energy to write in the way I had always written, with that same total focus," she explains. "My body and brain were at that point creating life, and so the creative energy seemed to channel inward rather than outward. What I wrote had no integrity to it."
Writing, however, was "part of who I was," she says, and at that point, even before Kate was born, Hesse started reading children's books. "I began discovering children's literature all over again, and it had changed enormously from the time I'd read it as a child."
Among the first books she happened upon was Katherine Paterson's Of Nightingales That Weep: "I couldn't believe that was children's literature." She went on to read everything Paterson wrote; "I learned at her knee, whether she knew it or not." A slow but very determined apprenticeship had begun. At the same time, Hesse needed to bring in some income. While Kate napped or occupied herself, Hesse did freelance work, typesetting and proof-reading for book compositors (knowing of her interest, they often sent her children's books). When the baby went to bed for the night, around 7 p.m., Hesse went to bed, too—and then got up at 1 or 2 a.m., to write for five or six hours until Kate woke up, ready to start the day. "I'm sure I was cranky. I was certainly sleep deprived. But I'm crankier still when I don't write!"
The grueling schedule continued. A second daughter, Rachel, now 16, was born a few years later. Though Hesse had yet to place one of her books with a publisher, she forged on; she founded a local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and began leading a writer's group. She wrote book after book, and while her work was good enough that the rejection letters were personal, rejection letters were all she received.
Finally, about 12 years ago, she arrived at a turning point—along an unlikely path. Deeply inspired by hospice volunteers who helped her grandmother achieve a dignified death at home, Hesse underwent training and became a hospice volunteer herself. Tellingly, when she speaks of this work, involving hours every day, she doesn't mention the cost to her own tight schedule and her family's difficult finances, but speaks of the profound effect on her writing. While the genre she favored at the time was fantasy, her fiction focused on the same motifs that concern her now: "female protagonists dealing with issues of separation and loss."
But, she adds, "I just wasn't dealing with them in a fully realized way. When I took the hospice training, I had to look at myself all the way to the core. It made me think and respond on a level that I never had before. Because I was denying so much of who I was, because I had not confronted so much of who I was, how could I confront it in my work? Once I was able to look at my whole self, I could then perhaps create a whole, believable fictional world and characters who had solidity and substance and credibility."
Three published works emerged from the period immediately following the hospice training. Hesse sent the book that became Wish on a Unicorn to Brenda Bowen, then at Holt, because seven or eight years before, Bowen had responded encouragingly to a manuscript about Bigfoot and an abused girl. To Hesse's amazement, Bowen remembered her. Hesse summarizes Bowen's comments: "‘I love the characters in this unicorn story, but I hate the plot. Would you be willing to rewrite it?’" Thrilled, Hesse rewrote the book from scratch, expanding it from a picture book to a "novelette" in the process—and then, when Bowen still didn't like the plot, she re-wrote it a second time.
Unicorn, a middle-grade novel in the end, appeared in 1991, followed by Letters from Rifka in 1992, also from Holt. Rifka, an epistolary account of a Russian Jewish girl's emigration to America in 1919, based on the experiences of Hesse's great-aunt, put Hesse on the map: among other awards, it was named the International Reading Association Children's Book of the Year (to Hesse's great pleasure, the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony was none other than Katherine Paterson; today the two are good friends).
Suddenly a multitude of books by Hesse streamed into print: in 1993 two picture books appeared that had been written at essentially the same time as Unicorn : Lester's Dog (Crown) and Poppy's Chair (Macmillan). Every year since, there's been at least one book, a sign of unusual productivity especially in light of her diverse topics, from dolphin behavior and feral children in The Music of Dolphins (Scholastic, 1996) to the influenza pandemic of 1918 in A Time of Angels (Hyperion, 1995) to nuclear accidents and sheep farming in Phoenix Rising (Holt, 1995).
A Hard-Working Realist
As Hesse says, "I never do anything in halves." She started Rifka about 20 times, to get her heroine's voice exactly right; she rewrote The Music of Dolphins to give it a happier ending, then threw that version out, in favor of the more ambivalent one the protagonist had led her to. She worked on a sheep farm to get background for Phoenix Rising, and she routinely checks her work with specialists. For Just Juice, she says, she referred to a lengthy roster of experts, everyone from speech pathologists to tax specialists to a metal worker. "I went downtown to Dunklee's Machine Shop and I spent hours just watching Lester Dunklee fix things with his machines." Even Come On, Rain! required a call to a meteorologist: for the safety of her characters, she wanted to make sure there could be the right kind of summer downpour. "I just couldn't have those children out there if there was lightning," she says.
Her concern with accuracy extends to the emotional content of the work as well. When she presented the manuscript for Come On, Rain! to her writers' group, her friend and colleague Eileen Christelow suggested that Hesse consider just why her character would want rain so badly. Pondering the question, Hesse began to think about periods of drought, including the Dust Bowl of the '30s; before long she had contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society and located microfilm of an obscure newspaper published in that period. Come On, Rain! was put on hold as Hesse devoted herself to the work that became Out of the Dust.
The jacket for Out of the Dust bears a photo by Walker Evans, a portrait of a girl from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It's not merely a good design element. Hesse used that photo to represent the character to herself, a technique she often adopts. "I keep a photograph in front of me as I'm writing," she says. "I look in the eyes of that person, and in my brain there's a constant checking. ‘Would you say this? Would you do this?’ It keeps the character focused and real."
There are no photos above Hesse's desk at the moment, and no novel in progress, either. The Newbery Medal has kept her on the road, with a trip every week and a half or so, and plenty of speeches to write while she's home. Winning the prize has been "extrordinary" and "thrilling," and she is especially grateful to have received "wonderful, heartwarming, supportive" letters from previous medalists, and to have improved the readership for all of her books. But the Newbery responsibilitites have taken her out of what she calls "that creative mindset, where something is beginning anew." Even so, since winning the award she has finished not just Rain and Juice but a novel called A Light in the Storm, about a female lighthouse keeper in Delaware during the Civil War (due this fall as part of Scholastic's Dear America historical fiction series).
She also wrote her first autobiographical work, a short story for Amy Ehrlich's collection When I Was Your Age, Volume Two (due in April from Candlewick). It's a dazzling but often troubling story, depicting unspecified sorrows at home and secret knowledge of abuse in the row house next door. It suggests a vast unhappiness along with an almost literally redemptive vision, and she stiffens in her chair when it's mentioned. "That was a really, really, really hard story for me to write. I said yes because I have always wanted to work with Amy. And Amy was as great to work with as I thought she would be. But I will never write another short story again. I will never write another autobiographical piece again. Every word was painful to me."
Hesse is not contractually bound to any one publisher at the moment; she signs contracts only when she feels she has a salable book. Early in her career she had an agent, but for many years she has preferred to represent herself. Bowen, whom she followed from Holt to Scholastic, is now at Simon & Schuster, and there's no question of Hesse's loyalty to her. "I've worked with other editors," she says, "and most of the time I've had a really wonderful experience. But there is no other editor who understands me and the way I work and what I am capable of doing the way Brenda understands, and there's no other editor who can pull that kind of work out of me. She never tells me what to do, she just makes it so that I can't wait to explore the issues she's raised."
On the other hand, Hesse is loyal to Scholastic. "Even when I first came to them, they supported me in a way that went well beyond what they had to in order to make me feel at home there." She's especially pleased that they will be reissuing Poppy's Chair, now out of print but still in demand for its sensitive treatment of bereavement.
She also has great respect for Dianne Hess at Scholastic, who edited Come On, Rain!, and she is truly delighted with the artist Hess found, first-time illustrator Jon Muth. "Dianne knows what she wants, and she knows when it's right, and she's uncompromising in that vision. We had to work really hard together to make our two visions harmonize. But it a joy to do."
Where Hesse will emerge next remains a question. "Ultimately, the most important thing for me is to write the best book I am capable of writing," she says. "And get it into readers' hands. Whatever I can do, to do that, I'll do."
Wendy J. Glenn (essay date winter 2003)
SOURCE: Glenn, Wendy J. "Consider the Source: Feminism and Point of View in Karen Hesse's Stowaway and Witness." ALAN Review 30, no. 2 (winter 2003): 30-4.
[In the following essay, Glenn discusses Hesse's use of nontraditional narrative voices as a means of studying patriarchal mores in Stowaway and Witness.]
The source through which we receive information can influence significantly the message ultimately acquired. In a trial setting, for example, attorneys for the prosecution and defense tweak details surrounding an event to shape jury members' perceptions of truth. The same holds true in the world of fiction; the teller shapes the tale. In several of her novels for young adults, Karen Hesse, through the varied voices of her female characters, suggests a condemnation of patriarchal values. Maggie (Wish on a Unicorn ), Rifka (Letters from Rifka ), Nyle (Phoenix Rising ), Hannah (A Time of Angels ), Mila (Music of Dolphins ), and Billie Jo (Out of the Dust ) each struggle to survive in a male-dominated world; each character's account of life within patriarchy expresses contempt for a system that denies individual freedom and victimizes those who refuse to comply to established standards.
Although two of Hesse's newest titles, Stowaway (2000) and Witness (2001), continue to question patriarchy, they distinguish themselves from other works in her body of fiction in the use of a point of view other than that of the first-person, female protagonist. In Stowaway, our narrator is instead eleven-year-old Nicholas, who flees England by boarding a ship set to sail for the South Pacific. Witness takes its form from the Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters; eleven characters of varying ages and genders share their version of events in poetic form. In her decision to stray from her typical pattern, Hesse continues to explore gender issues but provides a look at patriarchal culture from within, in one case, and from multiple points of view in the other, ultimately strengthening the feminist pulse that beats within her earlier works.
Stowaway through the Eyes of a Boy
In Stowaway, we learn about the world as experienced and recorded by young Nicholas in the journal he maintains during the voyage. This world is a man's world, one in which women play a negligible role. Nick's mother has died, and his sisters, who remain nameless, are mentioned only once. We see only passing glimpses of the wives, mothers, and daughters of the natives that the crew encounters during the course of the voyage. Men rule both on land and at sea. Especially noteworthy are Nick's observations of men who hold positions of power, both on the homeland from which he fled and on the deck of the ship he hopes will carry him to safety. That which Nick chooses to reveal tells us something about his perceptions of these leaders, in particular, and patriarchy, in general.
Nick has fled his English soil as a result of the abuse he suffers at the hands of the men in his life. His mother has died, and he thus is raised by his father, a scholar who wants Nick to "overcome his soft-heartedness" and become a man (22). Because Nick is not interested in learning his Latin and becoming a scholar like his brothers, he is "a disappointment" to his father (3). One Christmas, Nick desires to leave his boarding school and spend the holiday in the comfort of his family. He runs away, and, after arriving home "tired, hungry, cold," his father says nothing, "not a single word," places him in his carriage, and drives him back to school (44-45). The father lacks compassion, embodying instead an emphasis on stoicism and "indifference," traits exemplified by the stereotypical male within the patriarchy (68). Nick's teacher, Reverend Smythe, is another powerful man; he takes "pleasure in beating others" (13). Realizing the punishment he might face should he beat one of his students, he instead, as patriarch and leader of his family, "beat[s] his own children, staring at [his boarders] all the while," forcing them to witness his cruelty (13). When Nick's father returns him to school after his attempt to run away for the day, the Reverend strikes "his youngest daughter, Josephine, eight years old, [Nick's] age, with a particular ferocity" (45). Nick is the only witness to the event.
When Nick's father completely gives up on his son's potential to enter the realm of the intellectual, he apprentices him to the local butcher, telling the boy, "The Butcher'll make a man out of you" (22). Once the Butcher brings forth the whip, forever scarring Nick's tender skin, Nick does not wait to learn what else the butcher might teach him. In his few years, Nick interacts with men whose power gives them the self-perceived right to abuse that power, to manipulate those beneath them in the patriarchal hierarchy.
The Distanced Intellectual
While aboard Endeavor, Nick encounters Mr. Banks, another man who wields power. A botanist and gentleman assigned to gathering and cataloging new plant and animal life discovered on the journey, Mr. Banks represents the culture of dominance in its civilized form. Mr. Banks is well-educated and has risen to the top of his field by virtue of his accumulated knowledge and subsequent expertise (5). He is used to getting his way and demonstrates little patience when the weather refuses to cooperate or the captain refuses to allow him and his fellow scientists and artists to go ashore. He is not cruel but shows the marked self-centeredness of a man in control. Although his "dark eyes are lit with an eager curiosity," he admires nature not for what it is but for what it can offer him as a man of science (5). When, for example, the ship comes upon a waterspout the "width of a tree trunk," Mr. Banks is unimpressed. Nick notes, "I suppose he could not shoot it, nor bag it, nor stick it in a glass bottle, and felt it not much to consider" (108). Nick, in contrast, views it as "a thing of wonder" (108). In another instance, Mr. Banks is asked to part with one of the dogs that has been traveling with him; the natives consider dog a delicacy. Mr. Banks parts readily with the beast, even though Nick claims it to have been loyal to and valued by the crew. He reveals, "Mr. Banks says nothing about Lord Grey's absence. Only a Gentleman could have given something so dear with such ease" (245). Mr. Banks is not unkind like the men Nick has known in his past, but he lacks the ability to empathize and consider the needs of those below him.
The Gentle Leader
Nick finds a model of masculinity that he can admire in the form of Captain Cook, a "clean-shaven man, strict and stern, with cold eyes," but "a good man" who repeatedly demonstrates his concern for others (2, 44). Although a respected leader among his men, Cook does not take advantage of his position of power. He, for example, "eats no more, no less, than any man on the ship" (222). In addition, he is "determined to keep his men healthy and well fed," even to the extent that he administers "twelve lashes a piece" for turning away one's portion of beef (13). Further, after the captain is insulted by the Portuguese sailors who control the port at Rio de Janeiro, he refuses to give in to his anger, realizing his men's lives depend upon the provisions that will be stocked on this stop (36). Finally, when the vast majority of his crew members die as a result of bad water collected at Batavia, the captain is obviously overcome with sadness and loss. Although he continues to perform his duties, "his heart seems broken" (259). Nick reveals, "He kept us safe and healthy for so long, and now he watches the men slipping away" (259).
In addition to caring for his men, Cook is respectful in his dealings with the natives; he teaches Nick the value inherent in every man. When landing on King George's Land, he cautions his men to respect the natives by taking "nothing from the island without making payment, not even wood" and to behave as guests in the home of a foreigner (73). Before landing on Otahiti, he requires the ship's surgeon to "check all the men for infectious disease" so they "might not bring European illness among the natives" (87). Finally, when King Raja of the West Indies excuses himself from a feast, thinking he is not invited due to his black skin, the captain "soon made it clear that he was welcome" (243).
Critic Elizabeth Bush claims this portrayal of Cook reflects Hesse's attempt to be politically correct; the description of his treatment of the natives is "inserted to soothe twenty-first century sensibilities rather than reflect contemporary mores" (65). However, while Hesse depended on historical documents in the creation of her text, she is creating fiction and is thus allowed to select details that best fit her perception of the character, even if an historically accurate portrayal does not result. Even contemporary men sometimes clash with "contemporary mores." Hesse's decision to select these details simply reinforces her positive portrayal of the atypical male and further challenges an Imperialist patriarchy under which explorers dominated and destroyed native cultures.
After observing Cook in the duration of the voyage, Nick deeply admires him. He writes, "Captain is a wondrous man, I think. I did not have a very high opinion of certain men when I came aboard. Captain has taught me that a man might be stern, even harsh, and still be fair" (222). He respects the captain for his compassion and convictions, seeing in his leader the kind of man he, himself, might become. As a male, Nick is granted access into the realm of social power; that he chooses to emulate a man who behaves outside the realm of stereotypical masculinity says much about the novel's representation of what a praiseworthy man should be.
Nicholas is both outsider and insider, providing a unique view of life within patriarchal culture. He is, at first, an outsider due to his age. He must learn the ways of men in order to be admitted into their ranks. Unlike the female protagonists we have seen in Hesse's fiction, Nick has the opportunity to enter the world of the insider by virtue of his gender. Indeed, over time and with hard work, he demonstrates his ability and dedication and is thus rewarded with approval on the part of his crewmates. More importantly, however, Nick chooses to forgo the invitation into the traditional patriarchal world; he knows that he is giving up power (a choice not granted to his female peers) but does so anyway. In novels told by a single, female protagonist, we witness the primary character passing judgment on a system in which she does not have and will never have significant power. As a male, Nick's rejection of patriarchal values is all the more telling of Hesse's stance.
Witness Truth in Many Voices
Witness is composed of poems narrated by eleven characters who tell us the story through several first-person perspectives. In addition to conversations and sermons in which an audience is present, Hesse provides the unspoken thoughts of each character. We are offered a look into a hidden self that is often not revealed in the use of a single narrator. We have access to the inner reaches of the mind and thus know the thoughts and beliefs of each speaker without having to interpret them through the descriptions provided by a first-person narrator. Through "the kind of silence" she maintains, by the manner in which she leaves her characters "to work out their own destinies or tell their own stories, the author can achieve effects which would be difficult or impossible" to achieve" if she allowed a spokesperson to "speak directly and authoritatively to us" (Booth, 273). Hesse's emphasis on the depiction of truth is evident when she writes that:
My gut knotted as I wrote from the point of view of characters whose lives were rooted in bigotry and intolerance. 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.
("Statement accompanying Advance Reader Edition" )
Although it is difficult to give voice to characters whose mouths shape words of prejudice and hatred, readers are able to witness characters in the vulnerable state of self-expression and thus make judgments on their own.
Every character in Witness faces the same experience, the arrival and increasing influence of the Ku Klux Klan, the embodiment of patriarchy at its worst. Its members are armed with cultural power and the belief that God has granted them the authority to exercise that power. The characters have choices to make in response to the Klan's attempts to strengthen its dominion, choices determined largely by how the characters perceive the Klan. Some see it as a vehicle for power, others as a source of misplaced masculinity, and still others as a dangerous deception.
Three men fall prey to the Klan's rhetoric, believing involvement will help them to garner or maintain power. Reverend Johnny Reeves first embraces the Klan due to the attitude toward Blacks that its members share. He claims to be a man of the Lord but regularly denounces Blacks as henchmen of the devil. During one sermon, he damns a Black minister whose congregation consists of both blacks and whites, claiming, "it's a sorry state, neighbor, / it's a pitiful state of affairs when a colored preacher / can lure good white folk from their hearths" (14). In another, he argues that Harlem is "the den of the devil," the "center of sin"; he claims that "if we are patient, my good neighbor, / we can stay here at home, / we can take care of our problems at home / and down there in harlem, the / negro problem will / settle / itself" (16). When the Klan gains a hold in town, Reeves carries the message of its members to the pulpit, using his position as minister to spread the word, the word of men who follow a creed of hatred and destruction. He tells his flock how he and his fellow Klansmen took a pine, forty-feet in height, constructed a cross, wrapped it in kerosene-soaked burlap bags, and set it afire on the hill above town; the "flames leaping, / seeking heaven, / neighbor, the white / crucifix scoring / the night / blazed perfect. / perfect" (52). He is overwhelmed with pride when, due to his pontificating at the pulpit and involvement in Klan affairs, he is asked to lead the group in the morning prayers. He shares the event with those to whom he ministers, telling them, "the gathering prayed with me, / neighbor, in the summer morning / with the bees humming in the clover. / they prayed with me as I declared the klan a / movement of god" (70). As a member of the "ruling" body, this man has the power to manipulate the doctrine of the church to which he claims to belong.
Mr. Harvey Pettibone, a local shopkeeper, also falls prey to the Klan's ability to bestow power on its members. At first, he views his involvement with the Klan as a potential money-making endeavor. In trying to convince his wife that they should join, he tells her, "if we join the klan, / we can wipe out bronson's grocery by next year, vi. / all the klan members will shop here, / even if they live closer to bronson. / bronson's made his feelings against the klan clear. / if we join up with them, how long could bronson last six months, nine?" (29). Although he is unable to convince Vi to join, he becomes a member and relishes his newfound sense of power. When the Klan learns that a hotel is serving liquor to its patrons, members step in to see their kind of justice enacted. After the event, Vi asks Harvey, "so you go in, dressed in those ku klux nightclothes of yours and you / think / you'll save the world from the evils of drink / by raiding the place and smashing a few bottles." Harvey replies, "it felt so good breaking that glass, vi" (102). Once he becomes a member of the dominant group, Harvey allows his passion to overcome his principles; he is swept away.
Percelle Johnson, town constable, commits his crime not through his actions but through his lack of them, resulting from his fear that the Klan will strip him of his existing power. Johnson is intimidated by and fearful of the Klan and thus remains a bystander, guilty of refusing to act when he possesses knowledge of that which is occurring in his town. He first allows the Klan to rent the town hall for its meetings, even though he has some reservations (18). Later, when faced with the arrival of two hundred Blacks hired to work on the nearby dam, he is concerned only with himself and the fact that his "job sure doesn't pay / enough" (101). He is frustrated by his obligation to "protect them / from the ku klux" and exposes his own prejudice in his claim that he will have to also protect the Blacks "from themselves" (101). When the Klan situation in town becomes too severe for him to handle after the shooting of Ira Hirsh, an innocent Jewish man, he hesitates to contact authorities who possess greater resources. He claims, "I hate calling for help" (127). When the detective from Boston arrives, Johnson is not at all surprised how quickly he uncovers "all the dirty little / things" that have taken place, including "the letters sent to mr. hirsh / threatening to tar and feather him / if he didn't move out" (127). Johnson shirks his duty as a man of the law out of fear of retribution on the part of the Klan, as well as out of his own concern for his reputation. His pride causes innocents to suffer needlessly.
The Worthy Men
In stark contrast, two of Hesse's adult males question and even impugn the ideology of the Klan, recognizing that its members hide behind masks rather than face the world as individual men. Newspaper editor Reynard Alexander vows to remain impartial and neutral when dealing with the issue of the Klan (26). It does not take him long, however, to realize the truth about the Klan and begin writing articles that eventually result in threats against his life. He writes without fear, seeking to present only the truth as he sees it: "from state to state, / from town to town, / men join who can not be trusted. / unscrupulous men / who work in the dark / behind hoods and masks. / it takes but ten dollars. / and when that sort of scoundrel / starts hiding under hood and robes, / no good can come of it" (69). Despite the threat that he should be careful about what he says and prints or there may come a day when he is unable to write or print again (108), Alexander continues to rail against the Klan (79, 103, 125, 137, 149). He refuses to cater to the demands of those seemingly in control, speaking his mind and undermining their power.
Dr. Flitt is progressive in his thinking and quick to defend those who are criticized by the Klan. While Reverend Reeves bemoans the changing role of women in his society, Dr. Flitt celebrates their newfound freedom. Reeves argues, "have you seen the way the girls dance? / sinful, neighbor, sinful. / these girls / doing the unspeakable gyrations of satan. / with each step they unravel the / moral fiber of our country" (21). The Doctor responds, "the flapper / is not the least bit alarming, / nor a sign of the declining social standard. / I doctor these women / and I have seen over the last years a transformation in them. / and what I see, / the opening of roses kept bud-tight so many years, / it warms this aging soul" (22).
The Wise Women
Although women are not granted the rights and privileges of full membership in the organization, they are given the opportunity to serve in a secondary role. If involved, their task is to attend to the domestic chores associated with helping the needy community members (at least those who are white and Protestant). The Klan espouses the idea that "the average woman / is happiest when she prepares food in her own kitchen / and sits down with her family to enjoy it…. / the average woman, / she loves her home and family first. / she might have got distracted / when she was earning wages / while her man fought in the great war. / but the trend is the other way now" (44).
The novel's women, however, see through this rhetoric and stand against the values of the Klan. Not a single female character in Witness chooses to associate with the Klan; each seems to discern and reject the deceptive tactics used by the group to recruit members. Ms. Sara Chickering, a local farmer, realizes the potential power of the Klan, claiming the "klan can seem mighty right-minded, with their talk of family virtue, / mighty decent, if you don't scratch the surface. / there's a kind of power they wield, / a deceptive authority" (59). Even after a threatening letter wrapped around a stone comes crashing through her window warning her to evict the Jewish man and his daughter who are living with her, she maintains her stance against the Klan. Ms. Iris Weaver, restaurant owner and rum runner, has chosen a non- conventional life that doesn't include marriage or family (19). The Klan disapproves of her way of life, but she perseveres, stating, "I was born protestant, / but i'd join the catholic church / before / i'd throw my lot in with the klan" (58). Mrs. Viola Pettibone, shopkeeper, ignores her husband's attempts to convince her to join the Klan. He promises her "parades," "picnics," and "speakers from all over" and assures her that "they take care of their women." In response, she "shakes her head slowly back and forth" and tells him outright that they should not join (25).
Those who refuse Klan membership and remain outside its realm of influence emerge from the events unscathed. Reynard Alexander, Dr. Flitt, and each of the females suffer outrage but, because they have not sacrificed their principles, feel no guilt. Those who sympathize with the Klan and enter its ranks, however, are destroyed. Reverend Reeves sleeps with a young girl (9) and ignores her resulting pregnancy; the child is found "stuffed in a shoebox, / wrapped in newspaper, / tied with a heavy cord, / and left behind a tree to die" (136). Once the Klan learns of Reeves' immoral behavior, his membership is revoked and the letters, "k.k.k," are branded on his back. He attempts suicide by jumping off of the steel bridge that rests across the Connecticut River (140). The fitting irony is that he is condemned by the Klan, the very organization whose principles he advocates. He is a hypocrite whose very heroes become his persecutors. Even within the Klan, no one is safe. Harvey Pettibone also suffers as a result of his involvement with the Klan, both socially and emotionally. After participating in several Klan events, his reputation among the townspeople diminishes, and his wife is forced to try to "buy back [his] good name" (128). His conscience also begins to peck at him and he subsequently "cannot get in bed with viola," a woman who, unlike himself, has remained true to her values (120). Percelle Johnson loses all credibility as constable.
In Witness, the use of multiple perspectives of the same events allows each character to tell his or her version. In doing so, personal biases are revealed, and judgments about the nature of the character can be made. Without the author-imposed limit of a single narrator, we know what each character is thinking. In Hesse's other novels wherein she gives voice to the primary female character, we hear the protagonist describe the actions and presumed thoughts of hurtful men, for example. To hear the words come from the men, themselves, is all the more disturbing.
In both Stowaway and Witness, Karen Hesse takes a risk in choosing to stray from her typical employment of the firstperson female protagonist. The result, however, yields two works of fiction that allow Hesse's questioning of patriarchy to emerge not only unscathed but become unabashedly more convincing. In Stowaway, the eyes of young Nicholas show us the various men who inhabit his world. Hesse chooses a gentle leader, one who does not fit the mold of what a patriarchal male should be, to inspire the young boy. Although Nicholas, unlike his mother or sisters or female peers, is guaranteed a place within patriarchy, he opts for a gender identity beyond that which is expected of him. In Witness, we hear the voices of many characters, bigots and kind souls alike. Hesse chooses here to celebrate those whose voices ring with words of goodness and equality rather than those who spout the rhetoric of power or patriarchy. In the end, those who accept the dogma of the Klan are destroyed. Although Karen Hesse is the ultimate teller of her tales, her characters serve as her voicebox, conveying her views of the world through their words. In Stowaway and Witness, the voice of a boy and the voices of many unite to perpetuate Hesse's message of hope, that we may be free to be who we choose, regardless of whether we are born boys or girls.
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Bush, Elizabeth. Rev. of Stowaway, by Karen Hesse. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 54 (2000): 65.
Glenn, Wendy J. Alternatives for Adolescents: A Critical Feminist Analysis of the Young Adult Fiction of Karen Hesse. Dissertation: Arizona State University English Education Program, 2001.
Hesse, Karen. The Music of Dolphins. New York: Scholastic, 1996.
Hesse, Karen. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
Hesse, Karen. Phoenix Rising. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994.
Hesse, Karen. "Statement accompanying Advance Reader Edition." New York: Scholastic, 2001.
Hesse, Karen. Stowaway. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2000.
Hesse, Karen. A Time of Angels. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Hesse, Karen. Wish on a Unicorn. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1991.
Hesse, Karen. Witness. New York: Scholastic, 2001.
LETTERS FROM RIFKA (1992)
Betsy Hearne (review date October 1992)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 46, no. 2 (October 1992): 45.
[Letters from Rifka, t]his epistolary novel chronicles twelve-year-old Rifka's journey from Russia to America, interrupted in Poland when she almost dies of typhus and in Belgium when the ringworm she has contracted on a freight train prevents her from boarding the ship with her family. From then on and through her stay on Ellis Island, she is alone except for the letters she writes to her cousin in the blank pages of a book of Pushkin's poetry. This device seems a little unbelievable, since Rifka's letters run to 145 pages, but the story itself is credibly developed and the voice convincing. Rifka's detainment leaves her realistically disillusioned about the immigrant experience: "You have to be perfect to come to America. I have this bald head and you, you have a crooked back…. We are not welcome." A number of novels have focused on the experience of Jews in Russia or new arrivals to the U.S.; this one is vivid in detailing the physical and emotional toll exacted for passage.
LESTER'S DOG (1993)
Betsy Hearne (review date November 1993)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of Lester's Dog, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 47, no. 3 (November 1993): 84.
Set in what appears to be a rural 1940s neighborhood, [Lester's Dog ] is a story that will reach out to children who have been fearful of animals—or human bullies, for that matter—that they find threatening. At the age of six, the young narrator was bitten by Lester's dog. Now he can pass Lester's house only with the help of his friend Corey, who leads him up the street to the spot where Corey's found an abandoned kitten. On the way back, Lester's dog charges ferociously, and the narrator finds himself less scared than angry as he protects the kitten, yells the dog down, and deposits the kitten in the care of a lonely widower. Corey's hearing impairment is subtly incorporated into the story not as a problem but as a fact; the real problem is clearly the narrator's fear, and the fact that it is well-founded gives the story more depth than if Hesse had set out to show such fears are all in a child's mind. (Who Lester is, and why people tolerate his vicious dog, are questions rightly left peripheral to the main conflict.) The full-color illustrations are tensely textured and dramatically composed, with softly blended hues and an occasional stylistic touch reminiscent of Norman Rockwell. There's a bit of bibliotherapy here, but the storytelling and pictures are strong enough to support the message.
PHOENIX RISING (1994)
Betsy Hearne (review date June 1994)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of Phoenix Rising, by Karen Hesse. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 47, no. 10 (June 1994): 321-22.
Nyle, who helps run her grandmother's Vermont sheep farm [in Phoenix Rising ], still has painful memories of her mother's and grandfather's deaths and father's desertion. In fact, she has experienced too many losses in her own life to welcome ailing refugees from a nearby nuclear power plant disaster that has just devastated the countryside and killed an untold number of citizens. Yet when Gran takes in young Ezra and his mother, Nyle's drawn to the boy, who is weakened from radiation poisoning and struggling with the sudden destruction of everything he's loved. It's a credit to Hesse that she concentrates on character dynamics instead of exploiting situational dramatics. The love between teenaged Nyle and Ezra is delicately developed, as is the prickly friendship between Nyle and a girlfriend who's a dwarf. In fact, the generally complex scenes and personalities render unnecessary the occasional overstatements ("It scared me, thinking about a world polluted by radiation"), repetitions ("people always leaving"), and political reflections ("If people really understood how big this was, how far it went, how deep, something would be done. Now. To change things. So this could never happen again"). The story speaks for itself, as "Ezra and his mother huddled together, alone in the dark country of his illness." The friends, family, and loyal dogs that personalize this tragedy will move kids to their own thoughts about social action.
Betsy Hearne (review date May 1994)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of Sable, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Marcia Sewall. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 47, no. 9 (May 1994): 289.
Easy to read and as basic in appeal as an animal story can be, [Sable ] is young Tate's account of how she got a dog her mother didn't want, and how she got to do the woodworking her father didn't want her to try. The dog comes first, wandering into the yard as a starved stray that Tate feeds, then names Sable and adopts despite the protests of her mother, who was badly bitten as a child. Sable is gentle but has the bad habit of wandering off and returning with neighbors' belongings. Tate is forced to give away the dog to someone with a fenced yard, which gives independent Tate the idea of fencing a dog run herself. She's too late—by the time she finishes the project, Sable has run away from the new owner. Tate experiences an agonizing sense of loss, but the dog reappears, starving again and this time injured as well. The reunion coincides with Tate's parents' recognition of her responsibility; yet none of this seems pat. The protagonist's anxiety is convincing and contagious to readers, her voice carries a direct authenticity, and even the stock device of a climactic storm seems freshened by the taut pace and simple writing. The rural hard-times New England setting, reinforced by Sewall's homespun pencil drawings, has a sharp but unlabored presence of its own. Practicing readers will recognize this as an early chapter-book of the first order.
A TIME OF ANGELS (1995)
Betsy Hearne (review date January 1996)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of A Time of Angels, by Karen Hesse. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 49, no. 5 (January 1996): 161.
Hesse has taken on a lot here and managed to do justice to it all. [A Time of Angels ] is a story about being Jewish, being abandoned, being alone with a life-threatening illness, and being able to survive through adjustment to sudden new circumstances. And these story elements, including a mystical vision that borders on fantasy, take the form of a first-person narrative set during three months of the influenza epidemic in 1918. Living in Boston with Tanta Rose and an herbalist named Vashti, Hannah Gold feels deeply responsible for her two younger sisters while her mother, who returned to Russia to care for their grandmother, is detained there by the war in which her father is fighting. When Tanta Rose dies of influenza and Hannah's sisters sicken too, Vashti sends Hannah to relatives, but the girl is already ill. She takes the wrong train, ends up in Vermont, and is saved by the Red Cross, by an old German farmer who nurses her back to health, and by a mysterious presence that seems to appear when Hannah most needs help. In spite of the large cast and canvas of events, Hesse has taken care to develop secondary characters to a complex degree: Vashti the healer is kind to patients but cruel to the children thrust upon her; the farmer holds to his pacifist views despite unpopularity with a community already alienated by his German heritage; and the scholar whom Hannah so disliked at the book's beginning and whom she reaches out to at the end goes mad with grief over the death of his own siblings. Perhaps the resolution, when Hannah finds her sisters alive and in the charge of her boyfriend's mother, is a little too good to be true, but this is the kind of fluke that sometimes happens in chaotic situations, and the groundwork has been well laid with period details that never intrude on the fiction.
Joanna Rudge Long (essay date May-June 1996)
SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. "The Long View: The Contemporary and the Classic." Five Owls 10, no. 5 (May-June 1996): 116-17.
[In the following essay, Long focuses on the narrative differences between the similarly set Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Hesse's A Time of Angels, noting how each text is the result of the time period in which they were authored.]
Midway in A Time of Angels (Hyperion, 1995), its fourteen-year-old narrator, Hannah, goes in search of a book that's been recommended to her: Understood Betsy. Thus Karen Hesse hints that Dorothy Canfield Fisher's 1917 classic was one inspiration for her own novel. Since Hannah doesn't find the book—the li- brary is closed because of the catastrophic 1918 influenza epidemic—she never discovers the parallels between her situation and Betsy's; wisely, the author leaves readers to discover them on their own.
At first glance, the surface similarities are most striking. Though the authors' vantage points differ by four generations, their books have the same setting and period. Both girls are parentless city dwellers, in the care of relatives, in less than ideal circumstances. Because of serious illness in the family, each is abruptly sent forth, alone, to the country, where the nurturing of taciturn but warm-hearted folk on a traditional Vermont farm leads to physical healing and moral growth.
But the contemporary sensibilities Hesse brings to her book result in some intriguing contrasts with Fisher's. In the tradition of her period, Fisher explicates an overarching theme with the help of a predictable plot, frequent authorial asides, and a satisfyingly tidy conclusion. Her first chapter, detailing "Aunt Frances's" over-anxious middle-class rearing of orphaned, nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann, defines the problem: Frances's worries and proscriptions have created a fearful, sickly child—a point Fisher makes in an ironical, rather arch tone, but one whose intrusiveness is mitigated by its gentle humor and indirection. The Vermont cousins who take the child in when Frances's mother falls ill are as wholesome and unpretentious as the nickname they give her. "Betsy" is a name that suits a little girl who is steadfastly learning to set aside irrational fears in the face of such actualities as a placid old dog, and discovering her own competence by taking on simple, but essential, tasks. Meanwhile, exercise strengthens Betsy and gives her a healthy appetite, and her blossoming self-confidence is crowned by a not too obviously contrived rescue of a younger friend. When Aunt Frances reappears with the news that she's to be wed to a traveling man, it's Betsy who has the judgment and maturity to suggest that they'll both be happier if she stays on the farm—and to do it so tactfully that their mutual affection is never in doubt.
Betsy's problems are systematically solved with the help of loving, sensible adults. Though most of the people Hannah Gold encounters are good-hearted, they also have a more realistic array of faults. Her troubles, too, are more complex, and far more intransigent. In 1918, she and her two little sisters are living with great aunt "Tanta Rose" and her gruff friend Vashti, a woman much in demand as a healer. Mama has been trapped in Russia, where she returned to see her parents, for the entire war; the last letter from Papa, in Europe with the army, was months ago. Hannah's Boston neighborhood is a crowded mix of Jewish, Irish, and other immigrants who coexist in a spirit of camaraderie fostered by their common poverty; intolerance is reserved for a young man who didn't join up—or Hannah, when she defies convention by peddling newspapers.
The flu's onslaught disrupts this community and its informal system of mutual support. When Tanta Rose and Hannah's sisters fall ill, the family is shattered. The day Tanta Rose dies, Vashti—exhausted from nursing the sick and hoping to save Hannah's life—hustles her away, without explanation, to cousins in Albany, N.Y. Having lost their address, the girl is ticketed to St. Albans, Vermont, but, falling ill, is put off the train in Brattleboro. Two weeks later, she comes to herself among strangers, too weak to care for herself, sure Vashti wanted only to be rid of her, uncertain of her sisters' fate, and too hoarse to speak a word. Gruff old Klaus Gerhard, lonely since his mother's death, takes her in and nurses her with folk remedies not unlike Vashti's. Hannah goes hungry until she learns to trust Klaus enough to tell him that she can only eat kosher food, but over the weeks the two establish a close accord. Still, though she has gradually responded to the old man's tender concern, and though she has had no word of her family, Hannah elects to go back to Boston as soon as she is well enough.
Each telling word, each piquant detail of Hannah's narrative evokes the World War I period or contributes to such deft portraits as that of Yossel Yankel, an insurance man who makes a game of paying the weekly nickel premium on behalf of the young orphans, refusing to take their money; or of a narrow-minded butcher who discriminates against Klaus because of his German name. Hannah herself—earnest, imaginative, conscientious—is beautifully realized. Other characters have stories that she only partly understands, yet Hesse gives us convincing glimpses—through Hannah's eyes—of fully dimensional people. The empathy between Vashti and Tanta Rose; the tragedy of Ovadiah, a young man who is destroyed by the repercussions of his decision to care for his brother instead of going to war—these traces of other lives lend Hannah's story a rich texture and depth.
On the other hand, the angels that pervade the otherwise realistic events—especially Hannah's guardian, with her trendy violet eyes and bare feet—will give some adults pause. From the opening pages, when Tanta Rose finds Hannah's pictures of them ("The angels I saw weren't the fierce angels of the Torah. But they were angels just the same"), angels are a presence here. Hannah's guardian is a comforter and a saviour, one who pushes her away from an oncoming trolley and later leads her to Vermont. Most such incidents allow alternative interpretations: Hannah's stress, sorrow, and debility might, plausibly, bring on solacing visions strong enough to direct her actions. But in the end, Hesse doesn't leave skeptics much of a way out: the angel actually transports a pair of boots back to Boston. Or are Hannah and the angel one and the same? Did Hannah give her only boots to a barefoot alter ego? Such reasoning is convoluted, but may satisfy some readers; others will be glad to accept the miracles.
Also troubling are the interludes that frame the book and appear between its sections—descriptions of angels aloft above a sleeping world. These four pages do contain some apt and lyrical phrases ("a mother's kiss, weightless as silk"). Unfortunately, other images are less felicitous ("A brooding moon sulks unseen in a star-filled sky"), while, overall, the tone of these passages veers perilously close to sentimentality. But while the heavenly visions may be problematic, the earthly sphere of A Time of Angels is brought to life with unusual delicacy and grace. To read Hannah's narrative is to be sensible of her tenderness and loyalty and despair, her tentative love for Klaus, the pain both are given by small-town prejudices against Germans and Jews, her courage in striving to get well in order to find her beloved family. Perceptive, written with sensitivity—in the end, with or without angels, Hannah's story is imbued with a human truth that makes it both moving and memorable.
And in the end, it is this sensitivity and truth—more than the surface similarities—that makes the two books kin. Understood Betsy does have a familiar plot and some characters who seem too good to be real, and yet—like Hesse—Fisher drew her main characters with subtlety and compassion, depicting Betsy's growth into self reliance and responsibility in a happy, untraditional new family with a wisdom and humor that still shine. These two fine books make a thought-provoking pair that children should enjoy reading and discussing for generations to come.
OUT OF THE DUST (1997)
Thomas S. Owens (review date January-February 1998)
SOURCE: Owens, Thomas S. Review of Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse. Five Owls 12, no. 3 (January-February 1998): 60-1.
While many of today's young-adult novels seem poetic, few are actually poetry.
In Out of the Dust author-poet Karen Hesse offers an episodic journal of free verse by a fourteen-year-old trapped by twin tragedies: Oklahoma's dust bowl and the Great Depression.
Teenager Billie Jo Kerber narrates in superb understatement. Her entries begin in January 1934. The first-person account starts with Billie Jo recounting her own birth: "Daddy named me Billie Jo. He wanted a boy."
The red-haired protagonist describes with humor and pain how the raging dust plagues not only her farmer father but every inch of their home. She quotes her father, joking that pepper and chocolate, not dust, cover the meal. Soon a fire takes the lives of Billie Jo's mother and infant brother. Scarred inside and out by the tragedy, Billie Jo, copes with isolation and small-town gossip over how she created the heartbreak. The teen's singed hands and scorched soul stop her from pursuing piano—perhaps her only ticket away from a distraught father and parched landscape.
With echoes of Sara Plain and Tall, Hesse's story shows hope growing amid desolation. Billie Jo and her father redefine their relationship and their ideas of what a family can be. Although Billie Jo's last account is dated less than two years after her first, readers will feel they have traveled a lifetime with a young woman who's grown wise beyond her years.
More than vivid storytelling, Out of the Dust gives a face to history. Teachers of social studies, geography and science will find here an invitation to examine some of the 20th century's most devastating events. Likewise, simple vocabulary and short lines of poetry will entice reluctant readers.
Hesse is the author of ten books for children, including Letters to Rifka and the acclaimed 1996 work Music of Dolphins (Scholastic Press). Out of the Dust seems destined to become her signature work, a literary groundbreaker as stunning as Oklahoma's dust bowl recovery.
Walton Beacham (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Beacham, Walton. "Out of the Dust." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 9, edited by Kirk H. Beetz, pp. 4829-44. Osprey, Fla.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1999.
[In the following essay, Beacham argues that Hesse's Out of the Dust is an accurate depiction of the emotional struggles of Depression-era Oklahoma which offers sentimental presentations of forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope amidst the desperation of the Dust Bowl.]
About the Author
Karen Hesse was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, began college at nearby Towson State University, then transferred on a work study program to the University of Maryland at College Park. There, she worked in the McKelden library, shelving and cataloging books, and helping reference patrons. After graduation she held jobs as a benefit coordinator for the University of Maryland, a librarian, teacher, advertising secretary for Country Journal magazine, typesetter, and proofreader. She married her college boyfriend, Randy Hesse, and now lives with him and their two daughters, Kate and Rachal, in Brattleboro, Vermont. She says that as a typesetter in 1980 she realized that she probably had a talent for writing children's books, but she did not publish her first book for young people, Wish on a Unicorn, until 1991. Since then, she has published at least one book every year—some for young adult readers and others for younger readers—and has quickly gained a reputation as an important writer for young adults. Among her numerous awards, Letters from Rifka (1992) was awarded the Christopher Medal and the Horn Book Fanfare in 1992; The Music of Dolphins (1996) was named Best Book by both Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal for 1996; and Out of the Dust won the prestigious Newbery Award for 1998. Her latest books, Just Juice (1998) and Come On, Rain (1999) are illustrated books for younger readers.
She has written of herself as thin and pasty, friendly but alone even though she was always surrounded by people. She read a great deal, and at the age of eleven or twelve discovered John Hersey's Hiroshima, which had a profound effect on her as she understood the horror and dignity with which the Japanese people of that island endured the blast of the first atomic bomb. She writes, "If more books for children had existed at that time with real issues, if I had seen characters survive the engulfing engine of reality, I don't think I would have felt so lonely, so isolated. I write now for children like the child I was, to show young readers that they are not alone in this world. My hope is to help them through hard times, to present characters who survive ordeals and grow as a result of them."
Out of the Dust is Billie Jo Kelby's first person narration of her life near Joyce City, Oklahoma from January 1934 though December 1935 when she was fourteen and fifteen years old. This part of the Oklahoma Panhandle, near the Oklahoma border, was among the hardest hit areas by dust storms and tornadoes, scorching the earth and causing terrific hardship for the people and animals that persisted to inhabit the land. Billie Jo's father is a wheat farmer, and although his crop has failed year after year, he believes that the rains will surely come and fecundity will be restored to the land. He is not so much an optimist in his faith that the rains will come as he is a part of the land, which has endured so long and with periods of great fecundity, that it is inconceivable to him that restoration will not occur. Billie Jo is an observer and interpreter, as well as participant, in the horrors that confront her family. She witnesses death by dust, death by fire, starvation, abandonment, mutilation, and other events that would break the spirit of most people. She recounts these tragedies so objectively, poetically, and philosophically that readers may wonder about her emotions as a narrator and human being; but the reality is that farmers trapped in the Dust Bowl during the height of the Depression had no options, and they either accepted and dealt with their situation, or they were reduced to broken, sometimes insane people. Billie Jo is a survivor who relies on a balanced perspective of her capabilities, limitations, and opportunities.
Because Out of the Dust is written as if it is journal entries by a fourteen-year-old girl, it seems deceptively simple, and in fact, the story can be understood and enjoyed by very young readers. It is, however, a sophisticated work of literature that provides the greatest reward for readers who are versed in American history of the 1930s; Freudian psychology; poetic forms and techniques; other literature about the Depression Era; myth; and symbolism.
Joyce City, Oklahoma is not a city at all—although there are a few stores, a school, a community center, and a hotel—but a farming community in one of the most desolate parts of the U.S. in 1934-1935. Dust storms have ravaged the land for four years, and in this, the fifth year of drought, almost nothing has survived. Every year Billie Jo's father, Bayard, and the other farmers, have planted their fall crop of wheat, only to have most of it churned up and destroyed by continuing dust storms. Joe De La Flor, a cattleman, barely keeps his herd alive because there is nothing to feed them but tumbleweed.
Dust permeates absolutely everything, and one of the strengths of Hesse's writing in this novel is her excruciating descriptions of the pestilence of dust. Chapter after chapter the presence of dust takes its toll on the characters' spirits until finally the great storm comes that buries tractors and animals, and kills people trapped in the open. The biblical prophesy of "dust to dust" is the literal physical condition of the characters. Dust has so infiltrated their bodies that they are on the verge of being transfigured into a heap of dust, into death. In her nightmare, which is no different from her reality, Billie Jo says
I was coming home
through a howling dust storm,
my lowered face was scrubbed raw by dirt and wind.
Grit scratched my eyes,
it crunched between my teeth.
Sand chaffed inside my clothes,
against my skin.
Dust crept inside my ears, up my nose,
down my throat.
I shuddered, nasty with dust.
The action shifts between Billie Jo's house—a shack typical of destitute farmers—her school, the community center where she plays the piano, and various outdoor settings. When she decides to leave home, she hops a box car. But the physical setting is not nearly so important as Billie Jo's conscious interior. Her mind is a room which the characters and events seem to inhabit. Rather than moving into physical space, Billie Jo draws physical space into her interior so that it seems that almost every scene transpires within her mind.
Themes and Characters
There are so many themes that they best be lumped together as "the human heart in conflict with itself." The characters are easier to delineate. Fourteen year old Billie Jo Kelby is tall, lanky, and identifies with the color red. She was red when she came out of the womb and she has been red ever since: complexion, hair, identification with apples. She is her father's daughter through and through, and she doesn't especially like what she sees.
Her father, Bayard, is a one-dimensional prototype of the silent, dutiful husband who has little to say to anyone until the end of the story when he and Billie Jo recognize that if they are to survive they must put the past behind them, and the only way to accomplish that is to talk. Her mother Pol is better developed though still a prototype of the stoic, misplaced woman. Billie Jo describes her as "not much to look at: long and skinny with poor teeth and dirty hair." Although her mother's past is not revealed, Billie Jo intimates that her mother never envisioned that she would wind up in this no man's land with a non-communicative husband. The only point of tenderness between Bayard and Pol is when Pol plays the piano; she is an accomplished musician and when they were younger, Bayard loved to stand behind her and listen to her music. He had, in fact, bought a piano as his wedding gift to her, and Billie Jo says that his eyes grew soft, standing behind her while she played. Billie Jo has inherited her mother's love of the piano, and has attained a level of achievement herself as a vivacious performer.
Various other minor characters populate the novel, and one, Aunt Ellis who lives in Lubbock, is important because she is the one sure escape Billie Jo has from Joyce City. Mad Dog Craddock, who was given his name because he bit everybody and everything in sight when he was two years old, is the only person to successfully escape the repressive world of the Dust Bowl; he is a singer of some talent, and he secures a job as a radio performer in Amarillo. Billie Jo, like Mad Dog, might have been able to escape as well had her hands not been badly burned.
The abundant themes are easily listed and more difficult to explicate. Among them are the effects of the Depression on the human spirit; ambition; dreams; loss and gain; pain and guilt; forgiveness; nostalgia; compassion; responsibilities to others; courage; abandonment; acceptance of a step parent; and above all, death.
Billie Jo is accomplished: she is the top eighth grade student in the entire state of Oklahoma as determined by statewide tests, and she is an excellent entertainer with the piano, including musical arrangements and improvisations. She is confidant in her ability to perform and eager to take her talent public. Her mother is reluctant to allow Billie Jo to perform because, as Billie Jo analyzes it, "Maybe she's a little afraid of me going somewhere with the music she can't follow. Or of the music taking me so far away some day." Billie Jo clearly has a vision of life beyond the Dust Bowl, and the means to achieve it. She says,
And I think some day I'm going to walk there [California] too,
through New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada.
Some day I'll leave behind the wind,
and the dust
and walk my way West
and make myself to home in that distant place
of green vines and promise.
Stoicism, or at least resignation, is almost a given condition for all the characters, but its virtues do constitute a minor theme. Billie Jo's mother has the most to be stoical about because she seems to have sacrificed the most. Bayard grew up on this land and would always be a part of it. Billie Jo, herself, is young and has the will and means to escape someday, but Pol finds herself at this end of the earth, married to an uncommunicative man, and at the mercy of nature. But in spite of her plight, she is resourceful and accepting of conditions beyond her control; she bears her life with grace and understanding.
Hesse takes a great leap of plotting and verisimilitude when she creates the terrible fire that burns Billie Jo and her mother, inextricably altering their lives; but having torched her characters, Hesse opens the way for the remainder of her many themes. Immediately, there is pain, both physical and the emotional anguish of what has happened. Billie Jo looks at her mother and says,
I can't recognize her.
She smells like scorched meat …
It doesn't even have a face.
For most of the novel following the accident, Billie Jo describes the physical pain she feels in her hands, but most especially the emotional pain of losing the talent that would have provided her exodus from the Dust Bowl. Her physical and emotional pain is real, not self-pity.
Once Billie Jo accepts the inevitability of her burned condition, the themes evolve to the questions of guilt, abandonment, and forgiveness. Bayard not only placed the bucket of kerosene beside the stove, but he also appropriated the family's savings to finance his drunken night in the pub as his wife was dying. In this respect, Hesse comes close to making Bayard a villain. Although Hesse based the incident of the kerosene accident of a real event documented in an Oklahoma newspaper, from the perspective of fiction, it is inconceivable that a seasoned farmer like Bayard would have brought kerosene into the house, much less left an open bucket near flames, unless he had malevolent intentions. He never explains, or apologizes for this action. But even if readers are willing to believe that leaving an open bucket of kerosene, which has a strong odor and could never be mistaken for water, was an oversight, his blazon abandonment of responsibility to his dying wife was a heinous act that Billie Jo quite rightly cannot understand or forgive. Neither can the reader quite accept why Billie Jo does not accept some of the responsibility herself since it was she, after all, who started the fire. After the newborn baby has died and the village women come to the house to help put things in order, Billie Jo tells us:
The women talked as they
scrubbed death from our house.
Stayed in my room
silent on the iron bed,
listening to their voices.
"Billie Jo threw the pail,"
they said. "An accident,"
Under their words a finger pointed.
They didn't talk
about my father leaving the kerosene
by the stove.
They didn't say a word about my father
into a stupor
while Ma writhed, begging for water.
They only said,
Billie Jo threw the pail of kerosene.
Although Billie Jo is aware that other people hold her responsible, she does not accept her role and transfers her anger to her father. When she does begin to show signs of understanding him, she ruminates that she can "almost forgive him" for taking the money which he uses to get drunk, but that she can never forgive him for leaving the pail of kerosene by the stove. Why can't she unless she believes that he has intentionally attempted to maim and murder? The answer doesn't become clear until the end of the novel (in the chapter "Met") when they are walking together and she realizes that he has skin cancer which killed his father.
After the kerosene accident, Billie Jo's life is changed forever, and she realizes that she will never be able to escape her miserable life in the Dust Bowl through her piano entertainments. Nor in her heart does she believe, unlike her father, that the land will ever be restored to fecundity. He has destroyed her future and she can never forgive him for that. But as her anger and subconscious guilt turn to acceptance, and when she realizes that her father may be subjecting himself to a slow, torturous death by cancer, perhaps as self punishment for his own guilt, she says
I am forgiving him, step by step,
for the pail of kerosene. As we walk together,
side by side,
in the sole-deep dust,
I am forgiving myself
for all the rest.
Forgiveness is seldom sincere and complete without compassion, which involves the process of self-absorption and identification with another being. Hesse makes the reader feel compassion for the characters; we identify with Billie Jo's self image; the loss of her friend Livie Killian; her attempt to make the most of her harsh conditions. She is a likeable character set in a time far removed from our own, and up to the point of the accident, we are cheering for her escape. After the accident we have great pity for her physical pain, loneliness, and isolation. [Hesse comes close to pushing the story into bathos (false pity) with the continuing dust storms, pestilence of locusts, short life of the cereus cactus, art show, second round of state tests, and Christmas dinner.] Hesse does not allow us at any point to falter in our compassion for Billie Jo. In contrast, Billie Jo must learn compassion for others, especially her father, before she can reclaim her own life.
An important element to Billie Jo's acceptance of herself is symbolized by the condition of her hands, especially as they relate to her piano performances and escape from her life in the Dust Bowl. Page after page she explains the degree of her pain, and we have no reason to doubt her. As her mother was begging for water on her death bed, Billie Jo was unable to provide the life-giving sustenance that might have prolonged her death because her hands would not function properly. In a valiant effort to restore her musical future, Billie Jo performs in the local talent competition and wins third place, providing a glimmer of hope that she might be able to continue her career. But at the graduation ceremonies, she is unable to play at all, saying that it has been too long since she used her hands.
This is, perhaps, the lowest point of her life, where she feels completely defeated and unable to see her future. As in all ancient Greek dramas, the Old Testament, and some modern drama (see Literary Qualities below), characters cannot begin their ascent to redemption until they have completely hit bottom. When Billie Jo learns from the doctor that her hands can be healed through the simple remedies of creams and exercise, we are distressed that Billie Jo has been deprived of this information for so long by her father's refusal to see a doctor. But this medical information also places into question Billie Jo's reliability as a narrator explaining her physical pain. It is possible that after the initial burns had healed Billie Jo was emotionally unable to gain control of her hands; in fact, if the doctor's diagnosis is correct and Billie Jo had been exercising her hands rather than refusing to force herself to play the piano, she might have recovered the use of them. By not using her hands to play the piano, she was honoring her mother's reluctance to give Billie Jo permission to follow a musical path. Before the accident she was eager to perform regardless of her mother's wishes; her refusal to play the piano afterwards provides an important insight into her emotional condition.
Abandonment is central to the novel's themes, and it appears in many forms. Most obvious is Bayard's abandonment of his wife (and daughter) to go drinking on the night of her death. The only reason Billie Jo forgives her father of this at the end of the novel is because she has learned the compassion to know that he, too, was in great pain because of the accident; he certainly knew that his wife was dying and could not bear the burden of her agony. Understandably, Billie Jo feels abandoned by her mother, which she exemplifies in her wish to adopt the abandoned baby in the chapter "Baby." Her poignant vision of the Lindbergh baby stiff and dead in the woods and her donation of clothes and the dimes her mother had saved for her piano education, reveal the depth of Billie Jo's feelings of abandonment. Billie Jo's father and the other farmers also feel abandoned by nature, which suggests a central idea: Job.
In the Old Testament, Job was a prosperous, pious man whose devotion God decided to test by stripping him of all his Earthly joys. First, God destroyed Job's wealth, then his livestock and the fecundity of the land to produce crops, and finally God killed his wife and children. At each disaster, Job refused to blame God for his misfortune until, at his lowest point, when any other man would have been broken—at which time most other men would have cursed such a malevolent God—Job reaffirms his faith and God rewards him by restoring good things to his life. Similarly, Bayard loses everything: crops, wife, new son, but he does not ever blame God. [Strangely, God is never mentioned by anyone in the novel, which is odd in a southern rural community during the 1930s.] Bayard, who is the Job figure, continues to have faith that his land will be restored, and in this respect does not abandon God even though God may seem to have abandoned the land.
Readers may well ask why Billie Jo isn't the Job figure. She certainly suffers, even more than her father who hasn't been burned. She has sacrificed more than him because she has lost not only her mother and brother, but all hope of escape from her plight in the Dust Bowl. Her father's future was already determined but she had her whole life ahead of her. And when she is reduced to total despair, she is more despondent and broken than her father at his lowest ebb. The difference between them as archetypal figures is that Bayard is truly the Job figure. We know nothing about his emotions as narrated by Billie Jo; he displays little emotion at the loss of his crops and family; he is never broken by the misfortune heaped upon him; and he never whimpers or transfers blame to anything else. He does not cry out against his fate.
Billie Jo, on the other hand, is a New Testament figure, a modern rather than ancient hero. In one of the most famous passages in modern literature, Ernest Hemingway wrote that if you are too strong, the world will break you but that afterwards, you will be stronger in the broken places. Billie Jo has been tested and tested; the world has been relentless in its attempt to break this strong young women, and it finally succeeds, but Billie Jo has ultimately gotten the best of her assailant because she has rebounded in the broken places by forgiving her father, accepting his fiancée, encouraging his renewed start in life, and believing that with creams and exercise, she may play the piano again.
All of the themes are emotional or spiritual except one, the Great Depression, which is social. Throughout, there is support for the government and justifiable belief that the government will help the people. Billie Jo is honored to play for the Franklin D. Roosevelt benefit; she names her dead brother Franklin in honor of the President; the government sends ample food aid to the school program; and on several occasions, it is made clear that the government is providing loans to farmers with no obligation that they will be able to repay them. Only if the crops prosper and the farmers are able to get back on their feet will the loans be repaid. This view of the government as benevolent father figure pervaded social consciousness in the U.S. until well after World War II.
Readers may ask if physical impairment is a theme. During the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S., much social attention was rendered to the subject of "handicap" rights. The return of maimed Viet Nam veterans brought the issue to prominent attention, which ultimately produced legislation (The Americans with Disabilities Act) to protect the rights of the physically impaired. The thrust of the debate and final legislation was the recognition that American society had long denied the rights and capabilities of physically impaired people to lead a normal life within their limitations. As a small example but important symbol, wheel chair ramps were not provided for most buildings. In Out of the Dust Billie Jo is greatly impaired but there is no discrimination against her because of her handicap. Indeed, the community tries to help her by encouraging her to perform in the talent competition and awarding her third place. There is no stigma attached to her physical impairment, and people do not seem to be embarrassed by it, even though Billie Jo is. If there is any social inference to be drawn, it is that medical attention was not readily available. Billie Jo's father was not willing to spend the money to take her to a doctor, but this is probably more of Hesse's attempt to characterize him than to provide social commentary. During the Depression, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals usually provided their services for free to needy recipients, and the doctor in Out of the Dust appears to be of this mold.
Hesse has imbued her novel with many literary precedents and innovative techniques, which are among the most interesting qualities of the novel. The most obvious are Hesse's use of sentence structure, line break, and chapter divisions. Readers will certainly ask why this book is considered a novel rather than a diary or poem, since it has all of the characteristics of the diary and poetic forms, and since reviewers have referred to it as all three. Its diarylike qualities include the following.
Each entry contains a date, and even though the day of the month is not specified, it is clear that each event chronologically follows the next. The headings for each entry are more like personal tags for remembering the entry than chapter titles that designate novelistic structure. Fourteen year olds normally do not write novels, while keeping a diary or journal was typical of many American teenage girls during those and subsequent decades. And most important, the line length is short, truncated before the edge of the page requires it. This suggests that Billie Jo is writing for herself, unconcerned with the structure of the sentences; it may also suggest that she has written her diary in a smaller book, and that when it was published in standard book form, the lines did not fill the page.
These are very good arguments in favor of the form being a diary; there are other arguments for its being a novel, and reasons why the distinction is important. True diaries, as opposed to literary diaries, are not self conscious and are not written with an audience in mind other than the diary keeper. People usually keep diaries to express their innermost feelings, to serve as a reminder in future years of their past. The most famous diary of our century, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1952; see separate entry, Vol. 1) is not written for anyone to read. In fact, Anne was terrified that her mother might find and read it, and even after the diary was turned over to her father, he expurgated sections before he would allow it to be published.
Billie Jo's "diary" is written with the intent that not only will someone read it, but that a total stranger will read it. She explains facts about the community, other people, and herself that would require no explanation in a diary. Second, and more subjectively (critics disagree on this point), the people who populate diaries do so because they have a direct connection with or influence on the diary keeper, especially a diary by a young girl. [Critics often distinguish diaries from journals by the impersonality or distance the narrator has on his/her subject. Thus the "Diary" of Samuel Pepys (1660-1669) might more accurately be called his "Journal" because his account of London life is more reportage.] Billie Jo presents people as characters, rather than references as her own friends.
In order to fairly interpret the themes of the book, it makes some difference if we regard it as a diary or novel because the function of the narrator changes between the two forms. In diaries, it is assumed that the narrator is the diary keeper and that whatever is entered is the impression of the author. There is no presumption that facts are presented to be facts but rather points of reference for establishing feelings. If the diary keeper says, "Sandy said such a cruel thing that it made me cry," we do not expect Sandy's remark to be regarded as a condition of cruelty, or even a point of fact, but merely the writer's response to something that was said. Conversely, if someone keeps a daily record of recipes or a log of T.V. programs watched, that is a journal or log.
Even though Billie Jo gives the appearance of keeping a diary, she falls into the circumstance of a fictional device called the "unreliable narrator," who gives the appearance of telling the truth but who, in fact, alters the reality of the situation for the purpose of allowing the reader to see through him/her. With humorous unreliable narrators like Huckleberry Finn, much of the humor is derived because Huck says he is doing one thing when we as readers we know he is about to do something else. "Unreliable" is not a negative critical term but one that simply identifies a narrator who may not be able to understand the full implications of what he/she says.
Billie Jo is such a narrator. When, for example, she states that her father left the bucket of kerosene by the stove, she implies that he did it on purpose. She doesn't tell us, or doesn't know why he would do such a thing, but she clearly sees it as an intentional act. She does not question his oversight (or evil intention) for leaving it there, but we readers are expected to do so. We are to look beyond what the unreliable narrator tells us to discover the truth. Anne Frank's diary is never written with such authorial intentions.
This makes Out of the Dust much richer as a novel than a diary; that Hesse presents it in diary format and poetic language compounds the layers of richness. Hesse invites us to probe Billie Jo's mind in a way a diary would not. If this were truly a diary, we would probably sympathize with Billie Jo and wish her well, but we would not be as compelled to understand her psychological complexity.
Another literary antecedent to Out of the Dust is episodic fiction, whose chapters do not have an apparent connection to each other. Certainly, in Out of the Dust there is cause and effect of some of the events, but there are many chapters which have no obvious connection to others, such as "Night Bloomer." Loosely, the ability of the cereus cactus to survive and produce a beautiful flower within the worst Dust Bowl conditions provides hope and fleeting beauty, but the chapter really has no connection to anything that happens, and had it been omitted, the reader never would have missed it. In tightly plotted novels, the omission of a chapter would render a section of the plot meaningless, whereas in episodic fiction many chapters (there are some crucial ones that cannot be left out) can be added or left out with little overall effect.
One of Hesse's most effective techniques is the use of poetry and poetic devices within the fictional structure. The short sentences and truncated lines may give the appearance of a diary but their primary function is poetics. The "line" in poetry is structured to call attention to particular words or phrases that carry special significance, imagery, or sound. Take, for example, a stanza from the chapter "Blame."
The women talked as they
scrubbed death from our house.
Stayed in my room
silent on the iron bed,
listening to their voices.
By breaking the first line after "they" and by placing "I" on a separate line, Hesse is focusing on how Billie Jo feels estranged from the people who are trying to help her. "They" are impersonal and serve as antagonists to Billie Jo. Hesse also places most of the verbs/adverbs (scrubbed, stayed, silent, listening) at the beginning of the lines and the nouns at the end (house, room, bed, voices). Look at the difference if the lines had been arranged as follows.
The women talked as they scrubbed death
from our house. I stayed in my room,
silent on the iron bed, listening to their voices.
Here, the women are much friendlier; the narrator is lonely but assured of some comfort. The women are talking to ward off the unpleasantness of scrubbing away death, and the narrator hears their voices in contrast to her silence. The iron bed is just a fixture in the room, not a cold, hard piece of furniture that, as a bed, should be comforting. Also, this rearranged stanza that is read more as a complete sentence than fragment, presents a narrator who is more rational—whose emotional condition may be more stable than the staccato narration that Billie Jo actually feels. In her use of line break to create emotion and insight into Billie Jo's mind, Hesse gives us another avenue to understanding themes.
Hesse also uses the traditional poetic devices of metaphor and symbol. In the chapter "Something Lost, Something Gained," she applies direct metaphor (or simile) in comparing her mother to tumbleweed and her father to sod. Indirectly, she applies metaphor in her use of the cereus cactus that blooms valiantly at night, then dies with the morning light. Her mother was that flower, killed by light and heat, and her own life may be as well.
The difference between metaphor and symbol is that with metaphor there is a parallel between two objects, people, or ideas, whereas a symbol stands in place of an object, person, or idea. Sometimes metaphor and symbol work at the same time but on different levels. The cereus cactus works as both metaphor and symbol. Because this chapter comes not long after her mother's death, Billie Jo could not look at the cactus wither and die because that process reminded her of her mother's death; the petals would burn and wither in the sun as her mother's skin was burned and withered. But the cactus is also a symbol for perseverance and the night a symbol for a time of nourishment. In the dark hours a thing of incredible beauty blooms because it has survived; Billie Jo will, too.
Another example of Hesse's effective use of symbol occurs in the chapter "My Life, or What I told Louise After the Tenth Time She Came to Dinner," embodied in the lines:
On the other shelf Ma's book of poetry remains.
And the invitation from Aunt Ellis,
or what's left of it.
Daddy and I tore it into strips
to mark the poems we thought Ma liked best.
Aunt Ellis had extended an invitation to Billie Jo after her mother's death to move to Lubbock and live there. It was a surefire way out of the Dust Bowl, but Billie Jo knew instantly that it wasn't an option that interested her. She put the letter on a shelf in case she ever changed her mind, or at least to remind her that she did have a choice. Once Billie Jo and her father reconciled to forgive and help each other, the letter was no longer necessary for Billie Jo's security, and so she began to shred it, not all at once in an epiphany of understanding, but piece by piece as she became more secure; that the two of them tore it into strips adds a second level of symbolic meaning as it illustrates their union; a third level is added in that the strips are used to mark the poems they thought Ma liked best. Symbolically, they are trying to get in touch with her now when in life they did not know which were her favorite poems.
In addition to her skill in drawing on both fictional and poetic devices, Hesse also draws upon the premise of Greek drama to make her story more horrifying. In his essay "The Poetics," which is perhaps the most influential work of criticism ever written, the Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined the components necessary for a successful drama. One of his criteria was that a noble person of high status, because of his own fault (usually arrogance), falls from grace to the lowest possible level he could descend, then finds the courage (usually through humility) to rise again. This is, in fact, the same premise as the story of Job, except that the moral lessons are different.
Billie Jo is indeed a noble figure who is, for her time and place, highly accomplished. She is the best eighth grade student in the entire state of the huge state of Oklahoma, and she is an accomplished musician. It is her fate that the bucket of kerosene is placed in her path. Through carelessness she causes her own downfall and is directly responsible for her mother catching on fire. She quickly descends, and after much agony in her lowly position learns compassion, then forgiveness, and is able to begin her ascent toward restoration. It doesn't matter whether the reader recognizes this classical premise of high drama, but its effect is powerful and works as surely in Out of the Dust as it does in Oedipus the King or King Lear. A similar component of traditional literary device is the presence of the "four elements": earth, air, fire, and water. Whenever these forces combine against humankind, tragedy follows, and the power of "fate" becomes terrifying.
Out of the Dust is a high-minded, literary work that contains nothing that would offend a sensitive reader. The absence of homage to God or salvation is not sacrilege but an aspect of Old Testament stoicism that Hesse wishes to imbue in Bayard. There are many aspects of community life that Billie Jo simply does not address, and religion is one. Readers who believe that the worship of God precedes and permeates everything else, especially redemption and salvation, may find the absence of religion offensive, but it is simply not part of the story Hesse wishes to tell. Had she included religion, she would have brought an entirely new element to the story that would have clouded the drama she has created.
As a historical snapshot of the Depression Era, Hesse provides an effective portrait of the misery and entrapment of Dust Bowl farmers and ranchers. Page after page she describes the dust, to the point of excess and even monotony for the reader; yet this was the condition of the land. If readers felt the seemingly eternal never ending descent of dust, imagine how the participants felt after five years of drought. Hesse's positive portrayal of federal government benevolence may seem patronizing to people critical of the central government today, and they may question whether this aspect of Hesse's story was necessary to develop and resolve the tragedy of Billie Jo's life.
In the first few pages Billie Jo takes a strong stand against eradicating rabbits, even though they are desiccating what little foliage remains. She especially objects to clubbing them to death, and of the sport that is made of killing them. Hesse never really places this in context of Billie Jo's development, except as it reflects her youth and innocence at the beginning of the novel, and it serves more as characterization than political statement about animals. By the time Joe De La Flor's herd is so desiccated that government agents must systematically kill his cattle so they will not suffer, Billie Jo understands the humanity/necessity of sparing them the agony of slow, certain death. It is probably the attitude of the people who kill animals rather than the killing itself that offends her.
COME ON, RAIN! (1999)
John Peters (review date May-June 1999)
SOURCE: Peters, John. Review of Come On, Rain!, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Jon J. Muth. Five Owls 13, no. 5 (May-June 1999): 197.
A dejected child poses on this picture book's cover, the very image of wishful thinking. With eyes downcast, the child holds a big open umbrella in one hand while the other is stretched out in the hope of catching just a drop of rain—but the washed-out shadows and hot, hazy yellows tell viewers that there is no chance, at least, not yet.
Teaming up with a graphic novel artist making his children's book debut, the author of the Newbery Award-winning Out of the Dust captures again with throat-drying intensity the oppressiveness of a searing summer drought [in Come On, Rain! ].
"Three weeks and not a drop," sighs young Tessie's Mamma, sadly tending a row of drooping tomato vines. Up on the apartment's balcony Tessie, "sizzling like a hot potato," looks down the block and sees cats panting, heat shimmering above the street—and then, in the distance, clouds "bunched and bulging under a purple sky." No time to lose: Tessie persuades Mamma to let her don a swimsuit, then meets her friends in an alleyway just as the first big drops come plopping down.
Muth's watercolor illustrations are studies in color and composition rather than urban detail; against pale suggestions of brick walls or skylines hands reach up toward the lowering clouds, toes curl on dusty pave- ment, and skinny children—alone at first, but soon joined by their mothers—dance joyously through the downpour. The whole world is refreshed; even the subtly modulated sunlight that beat down so relentlessly before seems gentler when it reappears—a benign visual balance for the cool blues and grays left in the shower's wake. Showing her usual meticulous attention to language, Hesse writes with spare, poetic intensity, enriching Tessie's narrative further with lively metaphor: "Slick with sweat, / I run back home and slip up the steps past Mamma. / She is nearly senseless in the sizzling heat, / kneeling over the hot rump of a melon." Silent readers will readily identify with Tessie's misery, anticipation, wild pleasure and sweet relief—but share the book aloud, and listen to Hesse make magic with words as Muth makes parallel magic with brush and paint.
A LIGHT IN THE STORM: THE CIVIL WAR DIARY OF AMELIA MARTIN (1999)
Kay Weisman (review date 15 October 1999)
SOURCE: Weisman, Kay. Review of A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, by Karen Hesse. Booklist 96, no. 4 (15 October 1999): 444.
Gr. 4-7—This addition to the Dear America series [A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin ] chronicles the life of Amelia Martin, the 15-year-old daughter of a Delaware lighthouse keeper, through the year 1861 as her family and the country become embroiled in the Civil War. Amelia's home life is a microcosm of national issues: she and her father favor the abolitionist cause; her mother and grandmother support slavery. Life on Fenwick Island is a further source of conflict. Amelia and Mr. Martin love their duties protecting seafaring vessels and their passengers, but the constant humidity and sea spray aggravate Mrs. Martin's arthritis, sending her into a spiraling depression. Hesse's writing shines, as always, but the story line takes a back seat to setting and historical background. Characters seem to exist as a means of furthering a particular viewpoint rather than as multidimensional human beings. Nevertheless, Amelia is a plucky young woman who will appeal to middle-grade readers, especially fans of this series.
Martha V. Parravano (review date January 2001)
SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of Stowaway, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 1 (January 2001): 91.
A lively, engrossing example of that odd hybrid we might call speculative historical fiction. Karen Hesse has taken the few and meager facts known about Nicholas Young, an eleven-year-old stowaway aboard Captain James Cook's ship Endeavour in the year 1768, and elaborated them into a full-blown novel [Stowaway ]. Hesse tells her story through the device of a fictional diary, which Nick begins inside a lifeboat where he hides, wet and hungry, until the Endeavour is well away from land, and the danger of being put off the ship (and returned to a hated, abusive apprenticeship) has passed. Before the novel is over, Nick's journal will have described the particulars of an adventurous, three-year South Seas voyage; provided his insights into the diverse personalities of his shipmates and his commentary on the unfamiliar customs he observes in places such as Tahiti and Australia; and quietly documented his own growth. Hesse manages to show both sides of just about every aspect of her story, from the delights and frustrations of shipboard life to the double-edged nature of the encounters between British and island cultures. Her compelling storytelling and clever pacing command the reader's attention, even while reflecting the rhythms of the journey, which include doldrums as well as swift sailing. An afterword clearly delineates the line between the known and the speculative; that said, the inclusion of standard nonfiction back matter such as a glossary, a list of the ship's company, and an itinerary (but no usable map) tends to reinforce the book's factual basis. Karen Hesse easily overcomes her implausible premise—a desperate stowaway provisioned with a weather-proof journal?—to tell one terrific yarn.
Junko Yokota and Mingshui Cai (review date May 2002)
SOURCE: Yokota, Junko, and Mingshui Cai. Review of Witness, by Karen Hesse. Language Arts 79, no. 5 (May 2002): 432-33.
In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan infiltrates a small town in Vermont, sending a shock wave through the peaceful community [in Witness ]. The families of Leanora, a 12-year-old African American girl, and Esther, a 6-year-old Jewish girl, become targets of hate crimes. Leanora falls victim to racist remarks and lives in constant fear of attacks; Esther's father is murdered in cold blood. Some towns-people who sympathize with the girls are also threatened. Others in the town share the Klan's biases and prejudices, and out of various ulterior motives, they collaborate with Klan members. Altogether 11 characters testify in their own voices as to what happens in the town. Their monologues, delivered in free verse recalling Hesse's Out of the Dust, vividly reveal the people's innermost thoughts on race, gender, religion, and other issues and truthfully reflect the social mores of that historical period.
ALEUTIAN SPARROW (2003)
Jennifer M. Brabander (review date January-February 2004)
SOURCE: Brabander, Jennifer M. Review of Aleutian Sparrow, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Evon Zerbertz. Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 1 (January-February 2004): 82.
Fans of Hesse's Out of the Dust and Witness may find [Aleutian Sparrow, ] this third historical novel written in free verse disappointing. Despite some deftly written entries, the novel doesn't provide a clear picture of either the young narrator (Vera, who's half-Aleutian, half-white) or the historical events (the relocation of hundreds of Aleuts during World War II). Unlike Hesse's fully realized narrator in Out of the Dust, young Vera remains a cipher, with no layers of complexity to garner readers sympathy—even a budding romance fails to stir interest. Frustratingly indistinctive, Vera's voice sometimes sounds too adult (she asks her mother, "Remember … how we visited Akutan / And walked … to where / blossoms framed the steaming pools like / masses of perfumed hair?"). The spareness of the verse seems to have limited the amount of background information the author was able to impart—of crucial importance when tackling a subject so unfamiliar to most readers. Some of the poems are quite graceful, conveying much in just a few lines, but in general, the format of this novel-in-verse doesn't serve the author well, resulting in meager characterization and, despite its elemental story of oppression and survival, a surprisingly unaffecting plot.
Lester L. Laminack and Barbara H. Bell (review date January 2005)
SOURCE: Laminack, Lester L., and Barbara H. Bell. Review of Aleutian Sparrow, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Evon Zerbertz. Language Arts 82, no. 3 (January 2005): 224.
[In Aleutian Sparrow, ] Vera lives with and helps an elderly couple in a relatively modern village in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, but every summer she returns to her home village "where the old ways steep like tea in a cup of hours." There she gathers fish, clams, eggs, berries, and other offerings that exist for those who know how to look, and there she feels most fully herself. However, when the Japanese invade the outer rim of the islands in the summer of 1942, the United States government resettles the population of the entire chain of islands to places on the mainland that are safer from possible Japanese attack. For three years, Vera and her fellow Aleuts try to carve out a living in the relocation camp, an alien environment where they can gather no food to supplement the inadequate supplies they are given, where they have no access to the familiar medicinal plants they need to make up for the lack of medical care, where they do not even have the option of creating proper sanitation. Somehow, Vera and many of her family and friends survive the dreadful imprisonment (though, historically, one-fourth of the Aleutian people died of disease and other causes during the relocation), and return to homes and land that have been largely destroyed by members of the United States military who were stationed on the islands during the war. In spite of heavy grief, fragile health, looted and wrecked homes, and a greatly harmed natural environment, Vera knows that "as Aleuts have always done, [they] will find the will to begin again." With lyrical language and great sensitivity, Karen Hesse has told the story of a little known episode in the history of the United States, and of the power and strength that individuals and communities can have. Read this along with Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki (Lee and Low, 1993).
THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE (2004)
Gillian Engberg (review date 15 October 2004)
SOURCE: Engberg, Gillian. Review of The Cats in Krasinski Square, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson. Booklist 101, no. 4 (15 October 2004): 404.
Gr. 2-5—In luminous free verse, Hesse's latest picture book [The Cats in Krasinski Square ] tells a powerful story of a young Jewish girl who, together with her older sister, ingeniously fights the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. After escaping from the Jewish ghetto, the girl avoids detection: "I wear my Polish look, / I walk my Polish walk. / Polish words float from my lips / and I am almost safe, / almost invisible." She finds joy in playing with the city's abandoned cats, who show her holes in the ghetto wall, which the girl's older sister and their resistance friends will use to pass supplies shipped by train to Warsaw The Gestapo learns of the scheme, and soldiers wait at the train station with dogs. Luckily, the cats inspire a solution; they distract the dogs and protect the supplies. It's an empowering story about the bravery and impact of young people, and Hesse's clear, spare poetry, from the girl's viewpoint, refers to the hardships suffered without didacticism. In bold, black lines and washes of smoky gray and ochre, Watson's arresting images echo the pared-down language as well as the hope that shines like the glints of sunlight on Krasinski Square. An author's note references the true events and heartbreaking history that inspired this stirring, expertly crafted story.
Lester L. Laminack and Barbara H. Bell (review date July 2005)
SOURCE: Laminack, Lester L., and Barbara H. Bell. Review of The Cats in Krasinski Square, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson. Language Arts 82, no. 6 (July 2005): 489.
Those cats, all those cats in Krasinski Square, used to belong to someone [in The Cats in Krasinski Square ]. Now they fend for themselves and feed on mice. Those cats are now the friends of our young narrator, a Jewish girl living in Warsaw during the time of Nazi occupation. By day she wears her Polish look, walks her Polish walk, and lets Polish words float from her lips as she moves about Krasinski Square playing with those cats. She watches as they slip in and out of the cracks and holes in the Wall of the Ghetto. She and her older sister Mira escaped from the Ghetto, and now they are all that is left of their family. Together, they have a plan to smuggle food inside the Ghetto. A small band of friends and those cats, all those cats in Krasinski Square, manage to save the day when the Gestapo discovers the plan. Hesse leaves readers with an author's note that connects fact and fiction in this account. Watson's art aptly captures the period in pencil, ink, and watercolors with a style reminiscent of the 1940s. And just so you know, even the text type was designed and cast by a Polish typographer, Adam Jerzy Poltawski, in the late 1940s. Read this one with Erika's Story (Creative Editions, 2003) by Ruth Vander Zee, The Yellow Star (Peachtree, 2002) by Carmen Agra Deedy, and The Harmonica (Charlesbridge, 2004) by Tony Johnston.
THE YOUNG HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN (2005)
Deirdre F. Baker (review date November-December 2005)
SOURCE: Baker, Deirdre F. Review of The Young Hans Andersen, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Erik Blegvad. Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 6 (November-December 2005): 735-36.
So strange, even unsavory, was Andersen that one questions whether any biography of him can be truthful and remain suitable children's fare. Hesse negotiates this difficulty with ingenuity: instead of a continuous narrative, she gives us a series of scenes from Andersen's childhood, thereby rendering an impressionistic portrait of the abnormally sensitive, highly creative writer [in The Young Hans Christian Andersen ]. In nineteen vignettes with titles from Andersen's tales, some as short as sixty words, she links formative events—such as Andersen's frightening encounter with a lunatic, or his scarring experience with a pretty milkmaid—with elements of his stories. Thus Hesse suggests how imagination twists pain into art (in this case, "The Bog-King's Daughter" and "The Sweethearts"). The thicket of Hesse's own figurative language helps her underscore Andersen's tangled imagination—in one short entry alone, old folks "nibble away at their days"; "mountains of fear rise from the deep seabed" of the boy's imagination; his grandmother "curried and combed him"; harsh words change to "bouquets of compliments"; and "the razor cuts of life could be called a clean shave." Purple prose, yes, but it suits. Blegvad's beautiful, tiny illustrations are almost too clean to convey the sordid realities of Andersen's childhood, but they lend enormous charm to this unusual account. With an afterword, a bibliography, and an author's note.
BROOKLYN BRIDGE (2008)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 July 2008)
SOURCE: Review of Brooklyn Bridge, by Karen Hesse. Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 14 (15 July 2008): 138.
Impressionistic glimpses of street children living under the Brooklyn Bridge and vintage newspaper excerpts braid themselves together to form this spellbinding novel [Brooklyn Bridge ]. The newly arrived Michtoms (based on fact) are the lucky ones, rising from shopkeepers to successful teddy-bear manufacturers. The travails of their neighbors and extended family, the city's human flotsam under the bridge and a "Radiant Boy" who is a "death omen ghost" represent the brutal side of the "golden land." Fourteen-year-old Joe Michtom tells his own story, establishing the story's central theme of letting go: of old possessions, secrets, mistakes that limit freedom. He is also central to the mystery behind the "Radiant Boy" buried under the bridge, whose "ghost" terrorizes the street children who live there. In this tale of Dickensian contrasts in kindness and cruelty, Brooklyn comes alive with the details of time and place, but it is the shadow of pain and transcendence cast symbolically by the bridge that haunts and compels. Another work of enduring excellence from Hesse.
Publishers Weekly (review date 25 August 2008)
SOURCE: Review of Spuds, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson. Publishers Weekly 255, no. 34 (25 August 2008): 73.
Not since Five Little Peppers or, perhaps, The Waltons has poverty been quite so romantic as Hesse and Watson (previously paired with Hesse for The Cats in Krasinski Square ) make it seem in this nostalgic book [Spuds ], narrated by the middle of three fatherless children. As their ma leaves to work the night shift, the three sneak out to glean potatoes left on a neighbor's field after the harvester has been through it. Hesse leans on readers to appreciate her use of language: "some high-beam car came flying 'round the bend" and the children dive down, "three tater-snatchers, flat-bellied in the dirt, till the tire buzz faded. Then, rising up in the moonlight, we commenced to cockadoodlin', revelin' in the pure pleasure of a close call." Watson's art roots this story pleasingly: inside their house, her characters look neat and flattened, the humble cousins of Kate Greenaway; the palette and props say Great Depression or earlier. The children's illicit harvest carries with it a moral, of course, and the narrator eventually realizes that their mother's love is so big that it "could turn even three little spuds like us into something mighty fine." Together, the story and pictures create an appetite, then satisfy it. Ages 4-8.
Beck, Cathy, Linda Gwyn, Dick Koblitz, Anne O'Connor, Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, and Susan Wolf. "Talking about Books: Karen Hesse." Language Arts 76, no. 3 (January 1999): 263-71.
Thorough examination of Hesse's canon conducted on the occasion of her Newbery Medal for Out of the Dust, incorporating teen reader input.
Fletcher-Spear, Kristin. Review of Witness, by Karen Hesse. Book Report 20, no. 4 (January-February 2002): 60.
Praises Witness as "well written, interesting to read, character-driven, and historically accurate."
Additional coverage of Hesse's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 27, 52; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 9; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 54; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 168; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 118; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 74, 103, 158; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 25; Something about the Author—Essays, Vol. 113; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1.