October Mourning, A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman; Candlewick Press, 108 pages ($15.99). Ages 12 and up.
Leslea Newman, author of more than 60 books, including “Heather Has Two Mommies,” offers a moving, deeply personal response, in the form of poetry, to the 1998 slaying of 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. (Newman happened to be the keynote speaker at the university’s Gay Awareness Week, arriving just days after Shepard was found savagely beaten and left tied to a fence outside Laramie.) The 68 poems, in a variety of forms, illuminate the impact of the crime in the form of fictional monologues representing various points of view, often based on news accounts and interviews. (Newman includes a meticulous accounting of her source material along with a helpful “explanation of poetic forms”; several poems were modeled after “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.)
Where appropriate, the poems are accompanied by quotes in italics from figures involved in the case or the trial. “Something Snapped,” from the point of view of unrepentant murderer Aaron McKinney, is accompanied by the quote” “Matt Shepard needed killin’ ” and also from McKinney, “guess what? We’re not gay. You’re going to get jacked.” “A sorry state” was inspired by a sign boosting Wyoming as “Like No Place on Earth.” “Voices” heard from include the fence, the stars, the wind, a doe (a large doe was lying next to the unconscious Shepard when he was found) and Matthew’s pet cat along with a bartender who saw him leave the bar with his assailants, the mountain biker who found him, the doctor, the police chief, the prosecutor and his mother (“How to have the worst day of your life.”). “The Cop” is accompanied by the quote: “I was a rotten son of a bitch when it came to dealing with gay issues,” from Dave O’Malley, police commander, who has since become an advocate for gay rights. The haunting “Wounded” is from co-defendant Russell Henderson, whose mother was raped and left to die on the side of the road. The poems are meant to be read as a collection, and together, they offer a moving, memorable portrait of tragedy.
– Jean Westmoore