Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 30, 2012

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard

In her introduction to this historical novel in verse, Lesléa Newman writes about visiting the campus of the University of Wyoming as a keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week just days after the murder of twenty-one-year-old Matthew Shepard. She details both the circumstances of his death and the reaction of herself and many, and explains that October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard is her personal and poetic interpretation of what happened the night he was kidnapped, beaten, and left to die, and in the following days, including the trial. In the afterward, she writes more about her personal connection to the hate crime and the need for imagination on everyone’s part, something she exercises mightily in the sixty-eight poems between.


These are told from many points of view, beginning with that of the fence Matthew Shepard died on. The collection ends with a poem called “Pilgrimage,” a hopeful, prayerful poem set at the place where a new fence was put up near where the old one was taken down. In between the poet imagines deep fear, tremendous hate, and great love, taking the points of view of the victim, the murderers, Matthew’s parents and friends, the stars in the sky, and more, in haikus, villanelles, free verse, rhymed couplets and other forms. Some poems seem like very short stories, showing the way a friend, a policeman, someone in a hospital, and others change after hearing what happened. Reactions range from compassion to anti-gay protestors at the funeral – and the people dressed as angels with seven-foot wings to block them from view. Some poems begin with brief quotes from people, with sources noted in the back, which  expand on the context. There are plenty of suggestions for further reading.

The poems will touch all readers with their power, and give a glimpse of history to readers too young to have heard about the crime. And as someone who’s old enough to have heard this as news, there was much that was new. Not only the voices, but moments built from lots of research about those involved, the time, and place, distilled into poems such as “What Twenty Bucks Could Get You in 1998,” which references the stolen wallet. The variety of voices make it clear how all people in many times and places are connected.

For more Poetry Friday, please visit sweet, smart Amy at The Poem Farm.



  1. Jeannine, This book made me weep and weep. And think. It is a life changer. Matthew Shepard was killed the day after our first daughter was born, and I handed the book to Hope as soon almost as soon as I finished reading it. It was so good, and so hard to hear Leslea read from it at NCTE. Thank you for this important post.

    It is great to be back in the Poetry Friday swing of things. I missed you too! xo, a.

    • Sending hugs to you, Amy, and how dear, in this context, and probably many more, that your daughter is named Hope. I tried to embed the trailer in which Leslea reads from it, but wordpress was not cooperating with me today. Thanks for all your poetry gathering at the farm!

  2. I can’t your post yet, Jeannine, though I was delighted to see the topic. I plan to read the book soon and then read your post. Can’t wait!

    • Sarah, I think you’ll be amazed. I have been cornering people and demanding they read, so I’m happy you’ve found your way to it on your own!

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful, insightful review. This sounds heartbreakingly beautiful and powerful. I will have to steady myself before reading it.

    • I know what you mean. You’ll need the right moment. It might be easier if this truly felt like history, if threats weren’t still happening. The photo of that beautiful young face in the book by itself breaks your heart.

  4. I have this book on my night table but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it yet as I know it will make me cry. The one poem I have read, the one from the fence, shattered me. I hope your lovely review will encourage more people to read this important book.

    • Yes, you’ll cry, and you’ll find the right time and place. Leslea shows Matthew so alone, it’s wrenching, but also paints word pictures of people gathering to send out light in his honor, and leaves you with hope. xo

  5. […] Writing and Stuff reviews OCTOBER MOURNING by Lesléa Newman […]

  6. Thanks for your review, Jeannine. This sounds like an amazing and powerful book, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve been loving A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver. Have you read it? I’ve thought of you while reading her poems. Beautiful. And so simple and wise.

    • Yes, A Thousand Mornings! Peter kindly brought it back from a Christmas shopping trip, and said, “Maybe you’ll…” and I snatched it and hugged him.

      It’s hard as a mom to read October Mourning, and the parents’ perspective is one that gets repeated with compassion. But seeing the strength and faith of Matthew’s parents nudges you to pull together your own.

  7. This is one of those books that is painful to read, but must be read. One believes that enough time has passed so that the hate and ignorance that was behind this crime has also diminished. But I think not…and that is why we must return to Matthew’s anguish, re imagine it, and resolve to continue to work towards making sure that such a sacrifice is never needed again. Thank you for sharing this, Jeannine.

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