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Saturday, September 29, 2012

October Mourning, written by Leslea Newman. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2012. $19.00 ages 14 and up

"This is just to say
I'm sorry you came back to me:
the land of your birth
the land of your heart
the land that they call
the Equality State

Forgive me
for not teaching you
what every Cowboy knows:
once a player is out
he may not be safe
at home

I knew that this book would affect me in deep and enduring ways. Leslea Newman has chosen to tell Matthew Shepard's story in a flawless diversity of voices...all having a real or imagined role in the events of that dark night in Laramie, Wyoming. I don't know how you ask yourself the questions she must have asked to include the fence, the clothesline used to tie him, a fallen mountain biker, the doctor, the doe whose nighttime nesting place was nearby, and the stars above.

Laramie, Wyoming gained infamy on that October night in 1998, when two young men lured Matthew Shepard from a downtown bar, with lies and the pretense of acceptance of his sexual orientation. They took him to a field outside of town, robbed him, beat him and then tied him to a fence and left him for dead. This hate crime was a wake-up call for many and spurred Matthew's family to work tirelessly toward having a hate crime bill passed. Almost fourteen years later, some progress has been made; hatred and harassment for the gay community has not ended. What can you do to help 'erase hate'?

In the 68 poems written for this book, the author gives a clear picture for the events as they happened. She acknowledges that the thoughts and feelings are her own. As a piece of historical fiction written in verse, they are meant to convey her own interpretation of Matthew Shepard's anguish and death, and its repercussions.

She writes with compassion, brilliance, and enduring heartbreak:


Then I was a son
Now I am a symbol

Then I was a brother
Now I am an absence

Then I was a friend
Now I am a memory

Then I was a person
Now I am a headline

Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost

Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson

In her afterword, Leslea Newman talks about speaking to the students at the University of Wyoming,  at an event planned before Matthew's brutal murder, and that took place on the day he died:

"I started my presentation by asking for a moment of silence for Matthew Shepard. Then I addressed the LGBT students in the audience, who I knew were feeling particularly vulnerable and needed special words of encouragement to go on despite their rage, sorrow, and fear. Next I addressed the heterosexual members of the audience, reminding them that they had a unique opportunity to show the world what kind of allies they were. Finally, I asked every member of the audience to think of one thing they could do to help put a stop to homophobia and to promise the person next to them that they would do that one thing before the week was through. Then I launched into my speech."

Leslea Newman was compelled to write these poems. She wrote them in a variety of forms (which she describes in the back matter): haiku, rhyming couplets, lists, found poems, modelling, concrete, and an acrostic. Each has power to have the reader see point of view, and that is the true genius of this work. She also provides notes to explain the origin of the epigraphs that begin many chapters and the reports from which she gathered needed information. A list of resources completes the book.

It is important to hear what Leslea has to say about the poems:

"Though somewhat heavyhanded, these poems are sure to instill much-needed empathy and awareness to gay issues in today’s teens I was inspired to write about Matt's death from the imagined perspectives of the "silent witnesses" to the murder. I wanted the stars, the fence, and the wind to symbolically bear witness to the tragedy spawned by hatred, and to deliver a message of hope."


"It is my wish that October Mourning will carry that message of hope, born from a horrific act of violence, to our youth. Those entering college this fall were only four years old when Matt Shepard was murdered. Those starting high school were only infants. But Matt's legacy will live on, and I intend October Mourning to be a vehicle for that legacy, to help our youth remember the lesson of his life and death: That all of us, no matter how old, no matter where we live, deserve to be free to be who we are. Hatred ended Matt's life, but love can unite us."

Now, please listen as Leslea reads two of the poems...

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