Reader Response: October Mourning by Lesléa Newman
This post is a reader’s response to a book read for the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge.
I am the Head of Children’s and Young Adult Services at the Vineland Public Library in Vineland, NJ. We have a population of about 60,000 people in a city that is both urban and rural, as Vineland is geographically the largest city in the state of New Jersey. I love reading YA, but I don’t always make the time for it. Completing this challenge forced me to read some fantastic literature that I can now recommend to our local middle and high schoolers.
Two of my colleagues read this collection of poems telling the story of the murder of Matthew Shepard and recommended that I read it for the Hub Reading Challenge. My colleagues and I had all decided we were going to complete the challenge.
I was a little apprehensive because all I knew about Newman was that she was the author of Heather Has Two Mommies, a book that, though groundbreaking at its time, was not really on the same level of subject matter as the Matthew Shepard story. I remember when it happened and the media coverage that it got, but it was during a time before the Internet was widespread and news was easily accessible, so there were a lot of details that I didn’t remember.
On October 6, 1998, a gay college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a bar by two men pretending to be gay who then savagely beat him and left him for dead, tied to a fence in sub-freezing temperatures in Wyoming. He was found 18 hours later and died five days later.
Newman, who never met Shepard, wrote a book of poems that sequentially tell a story. She chose various viewpoints for each poem, including viewpoints of inanimate objects, such as the fence he was tied to and the gun that the murderers used to pistol-whip him. She made it clear that she was speculating when she wrote from the viewpoints of various people (and obviously the objects) involved with and affected by this crime, though she did include actual quotes (with notes) preceding many of the poems.
The poems themselves are all moving, stand-alone poems as well as an affecting collection. Some are free verse, some rhyme, and she even included an acrostic poem. The Introduction and Afterword explain the events and her connection to Shepard’s school, as she was a keynote speaker for the school’s celebration of National Coming Out Day the same weekend of the crime.
Newman is an impressive poet, and the collection, in addition to memorializing Matthew Shepard, is a call to action to let go of hatred and make sure nothing like this ever happens again. The book packs an emotional punch, and the skillfully crafted poems will make me never doubt Newman’s ability to handle a subject this brutal again. I think that she may be a genius. Of all the books I read (27 total) and enjoyed for the challenge, this was the best of the best, with the right combination of grit, emotion, and beautiful use of language.
– Helen Cowan Margiotti