Review Blog

Jan 23 2013

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman

cover image

Candlewick Press, 2012. ISBN 9780763658076.
(Age: 16+) Highly recommended. Matthew Shepard was a 21 year old gay student who was savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die; all at the beginning of Gay Awareness week at his college in 1998. And the guest speaker for Gay Awareness week was Leslea Newman, the author of this verse novel which is a moving and powerful response to a shocking crime of hate.
It is a slim volume of 68 poems which unfold chronologically; the first part focuses on the night Matthew was attacked, the second part on the subsequent trial. Surprisingly perhaps, given the subject matter, this is not a difficult book to read. Indeed there is a certain beauty and elegance about the volume which makes the story it tells even more shocking. And this dichotomy is nowhere more apparent than in the cover: a seemingly peaceful pastoral scene which takes on new meaning with the prologue poem The Fence (before).
Cleverly, the author offers us unique perspectives on events: from the fence which held Matthew to the moon looking down upon him, from his cat waiting anxiously at home to the shoes he wore on that fateful night. The one voice we do not hear is Matthew's. Yet the humanity of his tale is more imaginatively evoked by revealing how many were touched by his death.
Newman weaves her tale with a variety of poetic forms, some quite simple (haiku and rhyming couplets) and some more complex (pantoums and villanelles). Often it is the sheer simplicity of form that will strike a chord with the reader whilst the variety complements the varied voices. Newman's 'explanation of poetic form' at the end of the volume, only adds to the value and depth of the work.
Newman's sympathy clearly lies with Matthew and she openly labels his attackers as 'monsters'. However, extensive notes at the end of her collection outline her sources and the context of each poem and if readers are concerned about her bias, there are also several pages of resources for further viewing.
If October Mourning is A Song for Matthew Shephard, it is also a song of hope: that we can learn from his death. This is not just a lesson in humanity, it is an extraordinary achievement.
Deborah Marshall

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