Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman

I first heard about October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard from Terri Lessene at the 2012 YALSA YA Literature Symposium, who described it by saying:

"it introduces Matthew Shepard to a generation too young to remember him."  

My heart sank when I heard that. Matthew Shepard's story was pivotal for me and many of my contemporaries.  I was two years younger, three inches taller, and twenty pounds heavier than him when this slight, bright, trusting young gay man was beaten to death in a hate crime that would later play a part in national hate crime legislation. A number of of my friends and classmates were in the midst of coming out, and Matthew Shepard's murder was a shattering event.

With the passage of time, most names and lives and stories will be forgotten,  but this is one name, life, story, that needs to remain in the public memory, and this slim volume is a beautiful, powerful way to aid in this.


For those too young to remember Matthew Shepard's story, too young to get chills and feel an ache at the bottom of your heart when you see it, the fence pictured above may just look like a fence.  It is the fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was tied for eighteen hours, beginning October 7th, 1998, after being lured into a truck by two men, beaten savagely with fists and a gun, and left barefoot, alone, for eighteen hours, before he was discovered, hospitalized, and later died from his devastating injuries.  He was twenty one.  He was a college student. He was gay.


October Mourning doesn't tell Matthew's story as a straight narrative, it invokes everything involved in the incident, giving each element a distinct voice thorough poetry:  the man who didn't invite Matthew to stay for an extra drink, the bartender who offered him his last kindness, the truck, the killers, the  fence, the moon that saw it all, the biker who discovered this beautiful blonde boy, who was so crumpled and beaten he was first mistaken for a scarecrow, the parents who heard the news, the nurse, the tree that became the urn that held his ashes, the friends who wore angel wings to shield mourners from the protesters that picketed his funeral, Matthew's own heart:

HEARTFELT APOLOGY (p. 34)

This is just to say
I'm sorry
I kept beating
and beating
inside
your shattered chest

Forgive me
for keeping you
alive
so long
I knew it would kill me
to let you go


I am no great fan of novels in verse.  They can seem affected, using the form as a gimmick more than a deliberate and correct choice to tell the story.  But when they work, they really, really, really work. This one really works.  You may note that the poem above is written in the style of William Carlos William's famous piece.  Newman uses this device a number of times, turning the wry apology of the original into genuinely grief filled moments of regret here.  She also employs classic forms to great effect a number of times, notably in her use of the rhythmically echoing pantoum as the fence speaks in THE FENCE (that night) (excerpted from page 16 below)

His own heart wouldn't stop beating
The cold wind wouldn't stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn't stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

The rallying repetition of a villanelle is employed in a pair of poems, one from the perspective of anti-gay protesters who spewed hate filled epithets at the mourners, and another, on the opposite page, from the silent counter protesters from the Angel Action group, formed for this event and still active today to provide a silent, peaceful barrier between mourners and protesters.

But this is not a book filled with strict poetic forms.  Free verse, found poems, and notably a concrete poem from the perspective of the stars overhead, scattered across the page like stars in the sky keep the reader connected to the voice of the various speakers.  A note at the end explains the forms and construction of the poems.  Many teen readers will be unfamiliar with the references to famous works and use of forms, so I wish this note had been a part of the front material.

Because the crime was so far beyond words, so senseless, so divisive (will today's teens even understand why it was divisive?), the impact so far reaching, spawning plays and movies and crime tv shows and counter protest measures and federal legislation, it is not just a crime story, not just a hate story, not just a story of gay bashing.  And while the facts of Matthew Shepard's murder are startling enough and certainly could and have been told in narrative form, Newman's "song" gives voice to the players in such a way that the reader moves through the event with a different kind of understanding.  It forces the reader to think of the event not as a story - it is not a fiction - rather a life and an experience that has a power all its own and needs to be remembered.

-Heather

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this.

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  2. I got chills just reading your review.

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  3. Thanks for reading, Anique!

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  4. And just as an FYI, it was named a Stonewall Honor Award for the Children's Award and on the Rainbow Project (http://www.ala.org/news/pr?id=12331 and glbtrt.ala.org/rainbowbooks)

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